Guest Post

Lost in the Margins – Sarah Chorn

Sarah Chorn is the host of the Special Needs in Strange Worlds column at SF Signal, and has become an important voice in the conversation about disability in genre. If you’ve been appreciating these guest blog posts, you should check out her column as well, where she’s hosted a wide range of authors talking about disability.


My brother Rob has a condition called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, as well as spina bifida. His life has been one very, very long struggle against himself, the world that doesn’t understand him, and sometimes his own family. Rob functions a lot like a person with Asperger’s. His spina bifida has relegated him to a wheelchair. Currently, due to seizures, he can’t read anymore.

Rob was the person who really got me into the genre. When I was a horrible teenager, it was Rob who got me to read The Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and A Song of Ice and Fire. It was Rob who traded books with me, and spent hours talking to me about worlds, plots and characters.

We can all blame my brother for my enthusiasm for this genre.

It was also Rob who taught me that reading is more than just a hobby. For him, it’s a way for others to understand how he lives and interprets the world around him. It is also a way for him to sort of take a vacation from his body, and his problems for a time. Reading wasn’t just fun, but an exercise and an education for him, and for me.

It is important to remember that books aren’t just pretty words strung together in an entertaining fashion. They are windows into souls, and looking glasses into the world around us. These books tell stories about lives and conditions that we might not be able to understand or experience on our own. They educate us, teach us tolerance, aggravate us, anger us, enflame us. Books make us feel.

Special Needs in Strange Worlds, my column on SF Signal highlighting the importance of disabilities in the genre, has just gone to prove to me how important it is for everyone to have a voice, and a spot at the genre table. In so many ways, my column has turned out to be the highlight of my time in the genre. I get to talk to giants each week. I get email from people who humble and profoundly touch me, from the blind woman who uses computer software to keep up with my column, to the gentleman who spends so much time and effort advocating for the disabled and has taught me so much.

The world is full of magnificent people, and I’m beyond fortunate that I get to interact with some of them.

On the other hand, it breaks my heart to realize that in so many ways, the disabled are still a vastly overlooked part of the genre community, with hardly any visibility, and very few people actively working to get disabled voices heard. In matters of diversity in the genre, very rarely do the disabled get mentioned.

There is hope, however. Some authors have been more than willing to openly talk about their own depression, disabilities, or their efforts writing realistic and honest characters that face complicated emotional, physical, and/or mental struggles, and so much more. It’s a small light on a topic that deserves so much more than I’ll ever be able to do for it, but it’s something. The willingness for authors to open up about these sensitive topics has released a flood of readers and other authors who understand, sympathize, and empathize. The conversation is starting. It’s slow, but steady, and largely happening due to the bravery of authors who are willing to open up to the internet about personal matters.

And people are listening.

A few weeks ago I got to be part of my (very first) convention panel, called Disabilities in Genre Fiction. I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout (I have an inferiority complex), and was absolutely astounded when I saw that every seat in the room was full. The panel was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. It was wonderful to be able to actually talk about the issues and people I have been introduced to in my time working with the special needs community.

It was even more touching to hear the stories that so many shared, from the woman whose daughter has cerebral palsy, to the blind man who talked to me after about how hard it is for him to find books that are accessible to his needs, and the gentleman who came up to me with tears in his eyes, clasped my hands, and said, “don’t ever stop.” It was profoundly moving to realize that this was a room full of strangers all coming together to support something that means so very much to me.

It gave me real, profound hope that the disabled, while currently rather overlooked in the genre community, won’t always remain that way. There are giants all around us, inspirational individuals who are some of the strongest people I have ever met. These individuals show what strength of heart really is, and have taught me how to not just love the books I read, but appreciate the lessons and diversity that can be found in them.

Books aren’t just words on pages. They are lives, lessons, mysteries and passions unfolding before us.

My brother, Rob, told me years ago, “I wish people would realize that someone like me can be a hero, too.” That quote is the single reason why I started my column, and that’s a sentiment I will never forget. Heroes are all around us, often silent, lost in the margins—individuals with souls that shine with fire and willpowers of steel. These are the people who deserve to be in the books we read, and the books we write. They deserve to be part of our diversity discussions, and our fight for equality in the genre.


Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. She’s a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never ending pile of speculative fiction books.

You can find her on SF Signal for her weekly column Special Needs in Strange Worlds, or say hi on Twitter, Facebook, or her website Bookworm Blues.

Sarah Chorn

Text, Subtext, and Pieced-Together Lives – Angelia Sparrow

Angelia Sparrow has done something in this essay I wouldn’t have thought possible — she made me want to go back and rewatch X-Men 3.

As I look ahead to the last batch of guest posts, I’m trying to decide whether to take another break before posting the rest. There’s a lot to process and think about in these things … what do you think?


Once upon a time—all the best stories start that way—once upon a time, there were no gay people on TV, except Billy Crystal on “Soap,” and certainly no lesbians. I joke that lesbians weren’t invented until the 1990s, and for all our pop-culture representation, we might as well not have been.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, not a great time to be gay to start with. The world was starting to acknowledge we were real, but the plague lay sore upon the land, and “Unclean” was not an atypical reaction. Pastors were preaching against gay people with the same vigor they had recently discovered for abortion after school segregation became a toxic issue with their congregations.

I’m a middle-aged married byke now, with four kids, two of whom are bisexual. I had no clue when I was six why I wanted to be Batgirl, other than the motorcycle and long red hair and librarian and apartment of her own. Lesbians weren’t even mentioned, except Billie Jean King, and I couldn’t be an athlete. Add in a lot of the aforementioned bad religion, and my generation learned to hide.

My daughters got subtext and the occasional relationship, but they still didn’t see much of themselves in media. Willow and Tara on “Buffy” were one of the first lesbian couples on TV, and certainly the first we watched with the kids. Seeing my approval of that relationship helped my oldest daughter, Victoria, come out to me in 2005. But Willow went from “I’m with Oz” straight to “I’m with Tara” gay without even acknowledging the possibility of bisexuality. And that hurt. It felt like a glaring omission, a negation.

Victoria went through the same media I had, twenty years before. And the problem movies and “dead in the third reel” stuff depressed her and bored her. Xena and Gabrielle were the only characters she saw having relationships with both men and women. She wanted to know if she was going to have to die young.

About this time, George Takei came out. Victoria had a huge Sulu crush to start with, and seeing him as an old man, older than her grandfather, and knowing he was gay, reassured her she did not have to die before thirty. We started looking for other, older media figures who were out, and found a few. But again, almost all were gay. Bisexuality was not an obvious thing, and something very few admitted to.

My youngest, Olivia, saw subtext before she could read. She loved Smallville and would lie on my tummy on the couch and watch it. We watched season 3, episode 2, when Lex gives the deed to the Kent farm over. Her eyes got big and she watched Clark and Lex, and then announced, “Clark love him, Mommy!”

In 2006, we saw X-Men 3. The movie gets a lot of scorn, but for us, it was a real turning point. Remember, this was the year after the Summer of Zach. We had joined with the local community to protest Love In Action, a reparative therapy center, because of Zach Stark, a teenager who had been forced into its program and left a list of the rules on his MySpace, exposing it. Our local movie critic called X3’s mutant cure “Love in Action in a syringe.” We had figured out a long time ago that the X-Men franchise wasn’t really about mutants. So we went. Victoria and I came from the movie with different takeaways, but we both saw exactly what was happening in the real world on the screen.

The cure. The ordinary humans fighting us (this was the same year eight states passed anti-marriage amendments). The radicalization of more marginalized factions. It was all there, with more explosions than necessary. We started getting more involved in the community. I volunteered at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Victoria became active in the local youth group. And my fundamentalist husband joined PFLAG.

Now, almost a decade later, we still piece together the existence of bisexuals in the margins of our media. There are gay characters in almost every genre, and they’re no longer limited to minstrelry or villainy. But bisexuals are rarer and almost always female. Irene Adler on the BBC Sherlock is presented as bisexual, Sarah Lance on Arrow. The very pansexual Jack Harkness, Brittany on Glee. They do, however, exist.

There are out media personalities, and some identify as bisexual. And this, too helps. My youngest, now in her teens, dates boys and girls alike. She listens to Lady Gaga, enjoys Misha Collins on Supernatural (the first out poly star), and knows they’re bisexual. Her media world is very different from mine, and hopefully a more welcoming one.


Angelia Sparrow is the queer pagan liberal that Pat Robertson warned you about. She has been writing professionally since 2004, when she sold her first short story, “Prey,” to Torquere Press’ Monsters anthology. Since then she has published a dozen novels, with everyone from Ellora’s Cave to Storm Moon Press, and over eighty short stories. She writes SF/F/H, often with a queer bent. 

Her work can be found at http://brooksandsparrow.com  and she can be found at valarltd on livejournal, Pintrest and Tumblr and Angelia Sparrow on facebook.

Angelia Sparrow

Breaking Mirrors – Diana Pho

I think Diana Pho’s post makes a good follow-up to Isabel Schechter’s post yesterday, though I’m having a little trouble getting the words right to explain why. (Low blood sugar incident last night means a very sleepy and brain-fuzzed Jim today.) Both Pho and Schechter talk about the difficulty they’ve had in finding themselves reflected in SF/F. Schechter described how important it was to finally find a good Puerto Rican character, and her fear and anger that Hollywood might take that away from her. Pho talks about finding herself by pulling different pieces from different stories.

It also ties in to some of what S. L. Huang said about intersectionality. I love the way these individual guest posts overlap and work together to (hopefully) build a deeper understanding…


Junot Diaz—rightly so—gets quoted often in the representation convo. One of his truth bombs stuck with me:

“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”

But here’s another truth valid in my life: when I didn’t see myself in a mirror, I smashed it and saw myself in the pieces.

#

The libraries I frequented growing up sorted their children sections in alphabetical order. Often, I choose new authors based on the jacket cover. Two things on one particular cover caught my eye: a wolf pack and a girl who shared my brown almond-shaped eyes and olive skin. At nine-years old, I fell in love with Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.

Mind you, I’m not Native American. But Julie was the first time I ever saw anyone who even looked remotely like me on a book and she got to befriend wolves. How cool was that?

I wanted Julie to be my friend to bond over specific things. She had two names like me—her American name and her Native one, Miyax (I also had an American name and Vietnamese name). She survived the Arctic tundra (I had New England winters!). She learned how to cook caribou stew that her lupine friends regurgitated for her after their kills (my mom’s curries could be made from caribou meat if I ate with my eyes closed).

Julie of the Wolves led to a lifelong interest in wolves and Native American cultures. But it was through my later studies I learned how George, a white woman, had conflated Yupik and Inupiaq cultures and how she refused to correct her mistakes in later sequels. The book also contains a lot of negative portrayals of Native culture and blatant stereotypes. I understand now how damaging these aspects are to the Inquiaq community, especially since this Newberry Award-winning book is still widely read in schools today.

But back then I pocketed a mirror shard to treasure: it wasn’t weird to live between two cultures. I wasn’t the only one who had to explain aspects of my family life to my white friends or have them make assumptions about who I was because of where my parents came from. I could be Diana and Tâm just as she was Julie and Miyax.

#

A couple years later I picked up a team of new book friends: the Animorphs, which was also my introduction to sci-fi and to fandom.

Aximili-Esgarrouth-IsthillAs scary as being child soldier fighting a secret alien invasion was, I wished to be an Animorph. I knew exactly who I’d be like: Cassie, the black girl whose parents were vets and had a whole barn full of animals. She was the compassionate, sensitive one, the group’s moral compass; I saw my own personality in her. But she was only my second favorite; my first was Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, the Andalite prince, the outsider from another world stuck on Earth.

Ax’s blatant missteps about American pop culture, his awkwardness, and his loneliness pulled at me viscerally. My first fanfics were about Ax and his honor-bound homeworld. My sister and I even drew a picture of Ax made of flexible wax sticks on our shared bedroom ceiling. Ax stayed there until my parents pulled it down last year when they were preparing to sell the house. At night, trotting among the glow-in-the-dark stars, Ax stood guard as I imagined stories about my alien friend, someone who could understand what it felt like not to fit into the rest of human society, even when he had the Andalite technology to look exactly like them.

Both of us had our human shells, Ax and I.

#

For one golden moment on American TV, I did see a character that surprised even me: Tina Nguyen from the PBS show Ghostwriter. She was the first Vietnamese girl I saw on TV that wasn’t a variety performer from one of my parents’ Paris by Night videocassettes or a barefoot villager running from/shooting at American soldiers in a sweltering jungle.

Her family’s story was not my family’s story. We had different hobbies (hers videography; mine writing and drawing), different home lives (she was from Brooklyn; her family owned a store; mine were suburban, my parents a nurse and an electrical engineer). She had a group of friends who all saw a ghost who traveled through the wires of the Internet and used the written word to communicate. Together, they solved mysteries around Brooklyn.

There were storylines that struck home. In one episode, Tina broke her mother’s favorite flower vase, and her mother was sad because those flowers reminded her of the village she left behind. Tina searched the city and found a branch of living blooms to give her in apology. I saw my own mother’s wistfulness and sadness in hers. But, like from all of the other characters I had corralled as a part of me, I took the pieces I needed. Seeing Tina there finally filled in that gap I knew I had been missing.

That was how I learned to survive; by seeing myself in the pieces I could, even if I didn’t exactly, see me. My list of favs I identified with one way or another grew over time. Demona from Gargoyles. Louis de Pointe du Lac of the Vampire Chronicles. Remus Lupin from Harry Potter. The loners and the outsiders. Bitter or resolute and loyal. Human to the core, despite the differences on the surface.

In the end, what did I do with these pieces? In one sense, I made a funhouse mirror to view myself—distorted, warped, imperfect, but nonetheless mine. On the other hand, funhouse mirrors are whole. A better word, perhaps, would be a mosaic. Or a stained glass window—one I needed that impacted my viewpoint of the world.

A common misconception about diverse representation is that its effects are, at best, liminal. Representation can only fit in the frameworks of “good” or “bad” examples. In reality, representation is more like constructing your fancy glass houses, then letting everyone else smash them apart and pick up bits to take home. Your art can easily cut others deeply, resulting in infection and scars. People may step around the broken fragments to protect themselves, or gather them carefully with padded gloves. And, on occasion, someone may pick out a shard from the dirt because it had sparkled like a jewel in their hand.

I want to see the landscape of science fiction and fantasy to become a city of reflections, blatant and elusive. I want so many examples that we can point to the variety and note the great and the terrible and the in-between without the fear of pointing out the fractures. The marginalized shouldn’t be feel like they are trapped inside the gilded frame of diversity nor should they be denied the ability of tell their own stories. Stories about the marginalized shouldn’t be lifted by the privileged to profit from that exposure, either.

The purpose of representation isn’t only about white, straight, cis folk relating to the “Other”. It is about me, a queer Asian-American woman, relating to you, who is black (and/or Muslim and/or trans and/or deaf and/or, and/or…). Representation should be a network of connections, not a single link between a minority exception and a standardized whole.

So let’s acknowledge what diverse storytelling actually is: building our own little stained-glass-mirrors out of other people’s stained-glass-mirrors. We hold up our respective mirrors between us. In that space glints refracted color and pure transparency and the glow of our faces—that is the impact of representation.


Diana M. Pho is an editor at Tor Books and blogs for Tor.com. She is also a published scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser. She is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk under the moniker Ay-leen the Peacemaker. For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues and fandom. Her most recent publications include the introduction to The Best of Spanish Steampunk, edited by James and Marian Womack and she has a forthcoming article in Like Clockwork, edited by Professors Brian Croxall and Rachel Bowser. You can follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.

Diana Pho

Photo by Rachael Shane

I am not Hispanic, I am Puerto Rican – Isabel Schechter

I’ve heard people complain that calls for diversity are all about forcing quotas on stories, which strikes me as odd.

Isabel Schechter mentions the number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (almost five million), and in New York alone. I think back to things like Friends, which was ostensibly set in New York. And I don’t think we’re talking about clumsily or artificially inserting diversity into stories so much as we’re pointing out how so many of our stories have clumsily and artificially stripped that diversity away…


When I was young, I became obsessed with reading. I read everything I could find. I especially loved mythology, fantasy, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that gods were blond, magicians were powerful, and boys could be astronauts. Oh, and everyone in the future was White.

When I was older, I read comics and novels. Women could now be superheroes, but everyone was still White. Except Storm from the X-Men. Storm was a beautiful Black woman in a flowing cape and tall boots. What was there not to love? It never occurred to me that my connection to her might have been rooted in the fact that neither of us was White. Until Storm, it had never occurred to me that I could be a superhero. I wasn’t White, blonde, or tall, and I wasn’t ever going to have boobs like that. Sadly, I never questioned why those were the criteria for being a superhero.

It wasn’t until I attended a feminist sf convention that I was exposed to strong, powerful women who were not all White. Some were Black, and every now and then, there was a Mexican. It was more representative of the world I lived in, but I never saw a Puerto Rican in sf. Given how many of us there are in the US, (hell, in New York alone!), I would think we could have at least one Puerto Rican character somewhere in the genre. If that character could have been a woman, too, that would have been even better, but hey, I was a desperate woman. I would settle for what I could get.

From that desperation came excitement when the TV show Heroes first started. A diverse cast! A Latino artist! Finally, a show that would include people of color as main characters and not just in the background, and they would even have superpowers! It turned out to be too good to be true. The list of fail in that show is far too long to go into detail, but my particular sore spot was the Latino representation. The Latino artist could only paint while high on heroin, and the brother and sister duo were illegal aliens. For bonus points, the sister happened to bring the plague with her, and of course, seduced one of the male Heroes in a particularly hot, passionate fashion. Because, you know, that’s how Latinas roll. Ugh.

The SparrowIn contrast to Heroes, The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell, has as its protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Puerto Rican linguist who is of Taino and Spanish background. The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books, and Emilio Sandoz is one of my favorite characters, and one with whom I identify closely. Not to take away from the novel, which I think tells an incredible story, but the fact that the portion of the novel that takes place on Earth takes place in Puerto Rico, and that the main character is Puerto Rican is part of why I love it so much. Finally, someone who looks like me. Someone who lived in the same place my mother grew up, where her parents came from, a place that I was connected to.

Puerto Rico is a place where people look like me, where we’re the majority, not the Other. When I went to Puerto Rico with my mother a few years ago, I saw the house she grew up in and I went to Arecibo to see the telescope there. Most people can understand why I would want to see my mother’s hometown, but wouldn’t have guessed that I went to Arecibo because the telescope plays an important part in The Sparrow. I even drove by La Perla, the slum where Emilio grew up, and which is an important part of what makes him who he is, because I wanted to see if it was as awful as he described, so I could understand him a little better.

When I found out that Brad Pitt’s production company had optioned the movie rights to The Sparrow, I was terrified. What if they got it wrong (as most adaptations do)? What if they cast someone who wasn’t Puerto Rican (let me guess—a Mexican)? Hold on, this was Hollywood, what if they cast a White guy? What am I talking about? This is Hollywood—of course they would cast a White guy. Because, you know, all the good guys and heroes are White guys. I mean, Jake Gyllenhall was the perfect actor to play the Prince of Persia, right? And changing the entire cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender (except for the villain, of course) to White people made total sense given the source material. And hey, Scarlett Johansen’s acting ability makes her the obvious choice for Ghost in the Shell, doncha think?

Sure enough, Brad wanted to cast himself as Emilio. Shocking, I know. Or not. But seriously, how could he possibly think he was the right actor for that role? Emilio Sandoz is the only character in sf I can think of who is Puerto Rican, and yet again, some White guy was going to whitewash a great POC character and erase that which made him who he was. Hollywood was going to take from me the only character I could identify with, the only Puerto Rican in all of sf. As if the real Emilio never existed. As if I never existed.

Rather than have that happen, I would have settled for any other Latino actor to play the part-Mexican, Columbian, Dominican, Guatemalan, Cuban, insert-any-Central-or-Southern-American-or-Caribbean country-here, just please, please, please, not a White guy! Thankfully, the film option expired and my beloved novel and only Puerto Rican character were safe, and I could stop living in fear. For now.

I know that given the dismal shortage of representation of any kind of people of color in sf, I should be grateful for any Latino characters, and I am, but it’s precisely because Emilio is the only Puerto Rican that it’s important to me that he stays Puerto Rican. It’s precisely because in the future everyone is some mysterious monolithic “Hispanic” that I want the world to know that “Hispanic” isn’t enough. It’s not enough in real life, and it shouldn’t be enough in our literature and media.

There are all kinds of Latinos in the real world, and there should be kinds of Latinos in sf. All of us should be represented, and faithfully so. We don’t all come from one country—no Virginia, Latin America is not one country. We don’t all look alike-yes, really, some of us are blonde. We don’t all dance salsa—some of us prefer Bachata. We don’t all eat tacos—pupusas are delicious, you should try them. We are not all Catholics—the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere are in Latin America. I could go on, and on, and on, but my point is that each of our cultures is unique, and everyone should get to see that. Just as not all White people insert-stupid-stereotype-here, not all Latinos insert-stupid-stereotype-here.

The number of myths and misconceptions about “Hispanics” is both hurtful and depressing. For a genre that is supposed to explore the universe, yet somehow can’t manage to explore the people living right here, right now, science fiction fails, time and time again, to be forward thinking. I am tired of never seeing myself represented. I am tired of reading about or seeing characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes. I am tired of White people trying to make it seem like they’re the only ones that do anything, and none of the rest of us even exist except in the background or as villains. I am tired of it all. And I demand better. You want to write whitewashed, one-dimensional crap? Feel free, just don’t expect me to spend my time or money on helping you push your agenda.


Isabel has been a fan since childhood and active in fandom for almost 20 years. She is Latina by birth, Jewish by choice, vegetarian by conscience, and uppity as necessary. As an event manager for a science museum, she is free to reveal her geekiness at work and not suffer any consequences. Isabel and her husband recently relocated to sunny California and so far, she has resisted the urge to go on Facebook and post pictures of herself wearing summer clothing in February while her friends back in Chicago are experiencing the Polar Vortex.

Isabel Schechter

False Expectations – Matthew Alan Thyer

There’s a lot of SF/F with military elements. You’ve got the space battles of Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game and the Honor Harrington series, the magical wars of Lord of the Rings or Feist’s Riftwar saga, and so much more. But how much does the genre get right? What happens when our stories misrepresent the military experience?

Matthew Alan Thyer talks about the disconnect between the stories he grew up with and the reality of his life in the Army. It’s a somewhat different sort of post than we’ve had so far in this series, but it still comes down to the importance of representation, and the effects when that representation is missing or inaccurate.


It was 1995 and I had just moved from basic training to my first Army technical school. It took the Army several months of bootcamp to disabuse me of pretty much anything my recruiter had shown or said to me, but I clearly recall thinking this was going to be the turning point where they began to programmatically repair those notions and build me up as a person. The point at which I would begin a lifelong pursuit of honor. I’d cross this threshold and “be all I could be.”

Up until my personal introduction to the actual military, the only information I had to go on was the common narrative of military science fiction with a little fantasy thrown in from time to time. Everyone I knew in my parents’ generation had avoided service. My grandfathers were notoriously tightlipped about their time in. My touch point for military life was genre fiction; I loved it and routinely gobbled up that particular narrative of esprit de corps, valor, and duty.

We all know how this story goes. The protagonist signs his name, takes the oath, and learns to trade violence under the watchful yet concerned gaze of a grizzled yet wise mentor. Then, after many tearful good byes, our man goes off to fight the ravaging hordes of giant bugs or merciless otherworldly killers knocking down the gates of civilization. He is the tip of the spear, the edge of the blade, and he is almost always Caucasian, justified and victorious. And that’s what I, in my early adulthood, thought it might be like. I gave my oath believing I was going to fight the “bad guys” — vile torturers, greedy dictators, and ruthless, Cold War Communists — while protecting an idealized America. My recruiters played on my naiveté, showing me compelling, heroic videos of tanks speeding across the desert and guys seated in the military equivalent of gamer nirvana, manipulating drones miles beyond the horizon. I embraced that vision of vigilance and good intent sterilized of consequence. I embraced the only narrative I had to work with.

Little did I know, vets are far more likely to experience divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness than our civilian counterparts. We contemplate and commit suicide much more often than those who did not serve. Let me tell you it can be a challenge to reconcile this statistical reality with the narrative I thought I would be living, and I’ve had to do so on a personal level.

Over the course of the next six years the reason I joined, and did my best, changed. My expectations evolved. Health insurance, a steady pay check, veteran’s preference points — my list got pretty long, but my motivations for doing that job never seemed any better than the people toeing the line on the other side of any conflict. This is not to say that there aren’t bad people out there. I know they’re around. I even served next to a few, and in my experience they tend to be people who feel that the propaganda they cling to is somehow better, more justified, than the pure ideology of the other side. My service taught me that the narrative thread which glorifies duty and service, so popular in the genre fiction I loved to read, is bunk. The people on either side of any conflict are just that. The “bad guys” in North Korea, they just want to eat and have enough left over to visit the dentist.

Knowing full well that it is simply page after page of rubbish, even I’d rather read that Chris Kyle was a super-human hero. The same goes for John Perry, Juan Rico, Captain America or Conan. The best of these stories have power. They can transport us to a place that is infinitely more exciting than the humdrum of our everyday. They may put us amongst comrades in arms whose uncommon loyalty feels somehow closer than that of our own family. Often, as we take on the mantle of the protagonist, we imagine we too will gain super-human ability and rare prodigy.

The problem is that this narrative lacks any bearing to the reality of a martial life, at least as I experienced it. Most kids can’t think that far ahead. I couldn’t. Their bullshit-penetrating radar hasn’t been energized yet. Whether they’re hunkered down, taking cover from indirect fire, or sitting in front of a radio console decoding bad jokes from North Korea, they’re likely living only in the moment — too tired, too lonely, too hungry, and too scared to worry overly much about why they are there. I did the job before me because it’s what I said I would do.

Then one day they leave all that behind and they re-enter a world that already seems convinced of their heroism and valor. They rejoin a society that has set the bar of expectation at the level of its fiction. This is when things get worse.

As a rule I don’t particularly like to talk about the details of my service. With the exception of a few amusing anecdotes that can be shoe horned into the popular narrative, my time-in was mostly a lot of lonely, bored, and tired, punctuated by brief yet profound moments of terror and/or horror. Needless to say, now I know why my grandfathers were both so tight lipped about their service. Hopefully I deal with those moments, all of them, just a little bit better.

I will say that getting the job done almost never requires the heroics we find in genre fiction. I was trained as a cryptanalyst, spent more than a little time working on diesels in the motor pool, and never once drove a 60 ton tank at flank speed into battle shouting my defiance as I independently broke an advancing line of H.I.S.S tanks. So put on your empathy pants and imagine how I feel each and every time someone asks me “what did you do?” I can see the anticipation on your faces, you’re waiting for a tale that will rival Ender’s. I sort through my mental rolodex of memories and know there’s nothing in there that will fulfill the elevated expectations most people have of vets. It sure feels a lot like being told your service has been judged and found wanting. Not a “hero?” You may be worthless.

If the stories we tell ourselves shape our understanding of reality, then the popular myth of military heroism has formed our collective expectations of what constitutes a hero. This person cannot be a Puerto Rican woman who was drafted in World War II to save GIs riddled with shrapnel any more than it can defy the archetype of the stoic brute who fights for God and country. But imagine, what if Hercules were experimenting with Buddhism. Perhaps he is deeply conflicted about the things he is duty bound to do. Maybe he feels as if he has taken a nose dive into a rat hole.

That rat hole is the irreconcilable difference between reality and the popular myth. The void between a false expectation and experience is a reductive purgatory with a dark gravity at its center.

A life dedicated to the swift and efficient exchange of violence, regardless of whether it ever sees combat, is a changed life. It is a life keenly aware of immediate consequence. It assumes it is not in possession of full agency, it seeks authority, and more often than not, it lacks foresight. The internet is littered with accounts of veterans attempting to decompress, to adjust to the demands of a civilian lifestyle. So are the undersides of bridges and busy street corners where homeless vets tend to congregate. Unfortunately even Captain Whitedude McManlypecs is vulnerable to all of this.

As an author I am uninterested in feeding a lie, even a popular one. These days my intention is to be the best writer I can be, and this makes it difficult for me to knowingly cut consequence from my tales. Sure I want to transport my readers, entertain them as much as I can, but I believe I can still bring them into a story without relying on worn out tropes that just aren’t true. As a vet I see this sort of thing as an unintended contribution to the very same propaganda that suckered me in the first place, and it irks me because it is dishonest. As a person, I am war weary. The martial solution seldom solves anything and where I find it in our stories it seems, at best, lazy.

“Why is it important I see my veterans clearly?” you may ask yourself. “Why can’t you just let me enjoy my stories?” The stories we tell ourselves have a shape to them, in turn those stories shape us. I think we lose sight of the fact that the key word in the phrase “military fiction” happens to be fiction. These stories grant a tacit sort of permission to ignore anything unpleasant. When we see vets struggling we tend to assume that they have it coming, that their current situation is of their own making. We assume that they are broken and cannot be fixed and consequently treat them with callous disregard. We forget that there is a price to war.


Matthew Alan Thyer writes science-fiction and speculative cli-fi. Prior to finding his voice as a writer he worked as a signals analyst, operations engineer, wildland firefighter, backcountry ranger, kayak guide, and river rat. His hobbies include trail running, backpacking, kayaking, and paragliding. You can enjoy his first book The Big Red Buckle.

Matt Thyer

No More Dried Up Spinsters – Nancy Jane Moore

There have been a number of different reactions to these essays. Most that I’ve seen have been very positive. But I’ve also spoken with people, generally authors, who felt defensive. At a recent convention, one author told me he felt like it was a language problem, that talking about things like sexism or racism or exclusion meant different things to different people, and to him these had always been conscious forms of abuse and discrimination. Which led to him feeling like he was being scolded for choosing to exclude people.

To his credit, he stepped back and realized that’s not what was being said. So much of what we’re talking about are unconscious attitudes, cultural assumptions we’ve absorbed. I grew up in a middle class, mostly white suburb. As a kid, I saw nothing strange about stories dominated by white people. For years, it never occurred to me that anyone was missing.

For the writers reading this series, the point isn’t to tell you, personally, that you’re Doing It Wrong. The point, at least for me, is to talk about why stories and representation matter. How it affects people. Not to say, “Hey, this is how you must write all your stories, or else you’re a Bad Person,” but to say, “Hey, here’s stuff you might not have thought about before. Think about it…”

With that said, please welcome Nancy Jane Moore.


One afternoon, when I wanted to avoid work, I pulled out one of my late mother’s Agatha Christie’s – a book featuring Miss Marple. When I’m procrastinating, I read things that aren’t important to me, but to my surprise, I found myself getting into the book. It wasn’t the plot that drew me in – Christie’s plots were always ridiculous – but the character of Miss Marple.

Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple's Last CaseWhen I read Christie as a kid, I didn’t much like the Marple books, yet all these years later, I found myself captivated by this smart “elderly spinster.” Odd. Then I realized what had happened: I got old. Maybe not as old as Miss Marple, who is probably somewhere between 60 and 80, depending on the book, but definitely not young, not cute, not the object of men’s desire. All of a sudden, the idea that the main actor in a story could be the older woman appealed to me.

I loved adventure stories from an early age. Mysteries, spy novels, swashbucklers, anything in which the hero found himself in danger on a regular basis and solved his problems with his fists (or his gun). If they included a whiff of moral dilemma, even better. And since none of the heroes in the available books were ever women, I identified with the male heroes, with Philip Marlow or George Smiley or even – goddess help me – with James Bond.

I wanted to be the hero, not the hero’s girlfriend. I didn’t pretend I was a man – I didn’t want to be a man – but I did pretend that I got to have the adventures. It wasn’t until a co-worker introduced me to C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine series that I discovered adventure stories about women. That drew me into science fiction, a place I’ve never left, especially when I figured out that if you wrote a story set in the future – or in a fantasy world that never was – you could give a woman agency and adventures without having to explain why she was “exceptional.”

I’ve always been a woman, so craving female heroes in my fiction came naturally to me. But I haven’t always been old. I suspect that when I was younger, I didn’t notice the treatment of old people in fiction. It didn’t occur to me that the dried up elderly spinster wasn’t drawn from real life. But for every “smart as a whip” Miss Marple, fiction has given us thousands of silly old maids, overbearing maiden aunts, and – to give equal time to the married – cheerful grandmothers.

We’ve seen so many of these characters that it takes very little description to convey them. I was reading a story the other day in which an elderly spinster was a very minor character, and I saw her instantly, a stick of a woman, scared of any man, scared of her shadow. I knew what I was supposed to see. These characters have peopled our fiction for so long that we’ve come to believe that they’re real.

And yet, I know a lot of older single women – have known them my entire life, have been one – and not one matches that description. I’ve never met anyone like the typical spinsters of fiction, but I still know what they look like and I know I’m supposed to mock them.

The “click” for me in realizing just how much we stereotype older women was a direct result of my own aging and the aging of my friends, coupled with spending time with people a good deal older than I was while taking care of my father for the last five years of his life. Here’s the most important thing I’ve noticed about all the older people I know: They’re individuals.

I know women who live for their grandchildren. I know those who enjoy their lives, but feel satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. I know ones still pursuing their careers even though they’re well past retirement age, because they love their work. For crying out loud, Hillary Clinton is a grandmother, older than I am, and working very hard to be President of the United States. But I bet no one who ever pitched a novel about the first woman president described her as over 50, much less late 60s.

As for me, I’m in the throes of changing my life. I just moved halfway across the country to live with my sweetheart, embarking on a serious relationship after spending my younger life as a happy spinster. My first novel comes out in August. I still do Aikido, even if I don’t fall down or fly through the air anymore. And I’ve got plans for so many stories I want to write, trips I want to take, experiences I want to have. I am in no way ready to settle into a sedate old age.

I’d like to see more women like me in fiction, and especially in SF/F, where we can bend all the possibilities. Catherine Lundoff has put together a great list of older women characters in SF/F, which she’s updating regularly. But to get a good list, she has defined “older” as women 40 and above. By that standard, the main characters in my forthcoming novel would qualify, though when I wrote them I made them in their 40s and 50s so they would be old enough to have responsible positions as scientists on an interstellar ship. That is to say, middle-aged, not old.

I suspect if you put the cut-off at 50, the list would shrink. And if you set it at 60 or 70, you’d be down to a few crones and witches and, of course, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Odo, who sparked the revolution that gave us the world of The Dispossessed. But Odo’s an outlier. And outside of Odo, I suspect many of the characters are wise crones. Granted that it’s better than the ditsy spinster, it’s still a stereotype.

I want old women who are starship captains and rocket scientists, rulers and generals, adventurers and sages. Let them be grandmothers and happy spinsters on the side from doing what they do in the world, just like the other characters in a story.

And, oh, yes, let them have sex. Old people do, you know. It’s not just something they did in the past. Some old folks are definitely getting it on.

No, I’m not going to tell you how I know that.


Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel, The Weave, will be published by Aqueduct Press in August. Her short fiction has appeared in many anthologies, in magazines ranging from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet to the National Law Journal, and in books from PS Publishing and Aqueduct. Moore is a founding member of the authors’ co-op Book View Café. She holds a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and lives in Oakland, California.

Nancy Jane Moore

Photo by Angelina Daves

Next Year in Jerusalem – Gabrielle Harbowy

One of the side effects of these guest blogs is that I’m constantly thinking, “Ooh, I want to read that!” as people mention stories and books in the essays and comments. I’m going to try to put together a reading list based on the conversations around each essay, though it may take me a few weeks to pull that together after all of these have been posted.

For now, please welcome Gabrielle Harbowy to the blog, talking about what it was like growing up Jewish, and  representation and stereotyping in the genre.


Jewish children are raised with an unusually sophisticated burden: complicity in the Santa Claus lie. “No, he’s not real,” my mother explained when I was eight, “but it’s important to Christian kids to believe that he is, so it’s our responsibility to respect that and play along.”

“But we’re lying to them!”

“I know. But they want us to. Their parents would be mad if you told them, and then they might not let you play with them anymore.”

Christmas is everything. It’s the most anticipated event of the year. Unless you’re a Jewish kid, in which case it’s a treat dangled out of reach. A game everyone gets to play…except you.

Sure, there might be one silver and blue star among all the red and green. As a child, I was told that I was supposed to be grateful for, and contented by, that. Yet, Christian decorations appeared all over my life without my consent: on my radio; on the front door of my school or my apartment building, as if they represented everyone inside. To dissent, to say that I didn’t want my space representing a belief I didn’t share, was to incite backlash.

Jewish children learn early not to rock the boat. If someone wishes you a merry Christmas, it is proper to thank them and improper to correct them.

Because of this, Judaism is not well understood and Christianity remains the default. The “New York immigrant” stereotype is only a small fraction of Jewish history and culture, but the old man who speaks with the Yiddish accent is most modern media’s default representation of Jews.

I was writing a piece of Jewish science fiction recently, and I found that most of my response to non-Jewish critique partners came in the form of shooting down my readers’ requests to see those stereotypes. They thought the Brooklyn immigrant dialect, the matchmaking yenta, the thriftiness and parental guilt, would make the work more “authentic.” It hurt to have to write “STET. We aren’t all like that” over and over in the margins. It reinforced the feeling that my cultural heritage was in the margins, too.

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Growing up Jewish, I’ve always been blind to New Testament symbolism. I have read the New Testament, but I haven’t internalized it the way someone who grew up with it would have. My husband grew up Catholic, and only by watching him react to media do I realize there’s a layer I’m missing. I’m fortunate that he doesn’t mind explaining.

If I were to fall into a random piece of fiction, I’d be at a huge disadvantage. My places of worship are few and infrequent. It is unlikely that a small town will have one. Even if it does, it’s unlikely to be my denomination. I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, so I don’t know how I’d prove that I’m not a witch. If a vampire were to attack me, odds are low that I’d conveniently be wearing a cross at my throat.

The first solid representation of Judaism I found in genre fiction brought vampires into my world: “Why is This Night Different” by Janni Lee Simner (in Sisters in Fantasy 2). It’s a Passover story in which a vampire is passing a house as its residents proclaim, in accordance with tradition, “Let all who are hungry come and eat” …which certainly counts as an invitation to enter. It was a brilliant use of Judaism taken to its logical extreme in a fantastical context. This wasn’t a story with or about a token Jew, or even a token Jewish family. Judaism was integral to the story. It was overwhelming to see myself, my family, a ritual I’d grown up with, on the page. I remember thinking, “You can do that?”

He, She and ItNext, I found Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It. Piercy brings the golem legend into science fiction by playing on its parallel to the android, with plenty of Jewish culture and history to provide setting, context, and flavor. Some of it was the result of extensive historical research, but some of it was the kind of flavor that only experience can provide. Someone else in the world knew what it was like to grow up with a grandmother like mine, with holidays I celebrated. I’d been the only Jewish kid in my class—for five years, the only one in my whole school—so I’d never had a friend who grew up with the same rituals and references I did. To find it in a book was to find a friend.

But that’s just science fiction and spec fic. In the typical medieval fantasy world, the binary theological options are Christianity on one hand and the author-created pantheon on the other. Though, I do refer any Jewish aspiring dragon-hunter types to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s wonderful Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals—another formative reference that deserves mention—I still wonder, has any Jew has ever slain a dragon or become a divine healer in epic fantasy?

And it’s so tempting to insert one, to make that happen, but I don’t want to tokenize people like me for the sake of inclusion. If someone like me is in a story, I want it to have purpose and expose a culture, a worldview, an experience, to people who aren’t familiar with it. We see the beasties more often than the people—the dybbuks and golems, without the presence of the culture that gave them form.

What does it say when our monsters get more representation than our people?

There are so many unmined fantastical elements of the real history, culture, and practice of Jewish life, and such a strong Jewish tradition of scholarship and commentary about that which is opaque and unknowable, that it seems natural to take these elements beyond their earthly logical extremes and into the more extreme extremes only possible in speculative fiction.

Speculation, after all, is inherent to Judaism. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we say on Passover—we don’t know where we’ll be a year from now, but we can aspire to be personally and philosophically closer to what we consider important at this time next year than we are today.


Gabrielle Harbowy is an award-nominated editor of fantasy and science fiction, a submissions editor for Apex Magazine, and managing editor of Dragon Moon Press. She co-edited the acclaimed “When the Hero Comes Home” anthology series with Ed Greenwood, and writes a column for the Lambda Literary Review. Her short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, including Carbide Tipped Pens (Tor), and her first novel is forthcoming from Paizo in 2016.

Gabrielle Harbowy

Photo by J. Daniel Sawyer

The Danger of the False Narrative – LaShawn Wanak

Welcome to the second round of guest posts about representation in SFF.

One of the common refrains in these conversations is, “If you want to see people like you in stories, why don’t you just write them yourself?” There are a number of problems with that statement, one of which author LaShawn Wanak talks about here. How do you create those stories when you’ve grown up being told people like you don’t belong in them?

Stories are powerful. Sometimes we don’t even realize how they’ve shaped our thinking…


Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve known I was a writer. My earliest memories were making up stories about my sisters and cousins. I told of secret tunnels under our neighborhood that took us to crystal-laden caverns. Or our dogs sprouting wings and bearing us off to a land where all animals could talk and fly.

When I was twelve, my grandmother got me a typewriter, and I began to write my stories. By then, I was trying to imitate all the books I read: Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Katherine Kurtz, Stephen R. Donaldson, and of course C. S. Lewis. I stopped making up stories of my sisters and cousins, and added my own original characters.

Every single one was white.

It never entered my mind that black people like myself could exist in fantasy novels.

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Back then, I thought blacks didn’t do epic fantasy. I only saw them confined to dramas dealing with drugs, gangs, prostitution, crime, slavery, segregation, or something dealing with race. If there were black people outside those genres, it was science fiction, like Octavia Butler or Samuel Delany (both of which I did not know about until I entered college). But epic fantasy? No such thing. The closest thing to it would be “magic realism” or stories involving voodoo, because that’s the only way blacks interacted with magic. No elves. No dragons. No swords or sorcery.

Heck, I myself was an anomaly. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was picked on by kids around me because I loved to read epic fantasy. Shonnie’s reading the weird books again. Why you reading that junk? It’s just make believe.

I didn’t know any other black kids who loved fantasy as much as I did, so I resigned myself to thinking that I was just that: a weirdo. I never questioned it.

It was a narrative I grew up with most of my life.

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The Innkeeper's SongThis all changed when I came across Peter S. Beagle’s “The InnKeeper’s Song.” On the cover were three women: a pale woman, a tan woman…and a black woman. With hair. Like mine. I don’t think I even read the book right away. I just stared at the cover for a long time because look there’s a black woman on the cover of a fantasy novel.

When I finally I opened the book, I learned her name was Lal. She wasn’t a slave or a hooker. She didn’t have man troubles or drug problems. She was simply searching for her wizard teacher so she could save him, and the world, from destruction.

That book blew my mind. But it didn’t change it.

Not yet.

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In college, I started writing an epic fantasy novel that had magic, prophesy, political intrigue–and one black female assassin. Although she was a main character, she was seen mostly through the eyes of the main white male character.

Then, I stumbled onto the LiveJournal community, right around the time of RaceFail, and found myself reading NK Jemisen’s essay, “We Worry About it Too“. Here was another black fantasy writer, telling of her struggles of writing people of color in fantasy, and how some things she got right, but others had fallen back on stereotypes that even she didn’t realize was there.

It challenged me enough to look at my unfinished novel and think, what if I told this story from the point of view of the black assassin?

Instantly, I became scared.

Because to write fantasy from a black perspective, I’d have to ignore the narrative that dictated to me for so long that black people don’t read epic fantasy. Black people don’t belong in epic fantasy. They can’t be in fantasy lands riding horses with swords and having adventures. They need to stay in cities and deal with gangs and drugs.

But this is a false narrative.

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A few weeks ago I had the unfortunate pleasure of hearing a pastor say something problematic about black women. I was hurt and, of course, outraged. Didn’t he think before he said it? How could he say such a thing?

A few days after, I saw someone post on Facebook a tweet from a woman named “Luwanda” who wrote: “Yes u should get vaccines. And so what if that makes your kid artistic. That don’t always mean he’s gay.” Immediately I reposted it, because I thought it was so mind-blowingly ignorant and hilarious.

Then I actually looked up Luwanda’s Twitter feed. She’s a pretty savvy satirist who knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote that tweet. But I only saw the tweet (ghetto language), saw her name (ghetto name) and instantly thought she wasn’t someone to take seriously. It was a knee-jerk reaction—I’ve seen enough news stories, sitcoms, movies that portray the poor black ignorant woman that even though I know it’s a stereotype, there’s still a part of me that thinks it’s true.

And that needs to change.

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I’m not good at speeches. I don’t like debating people. I’m pretty passive aggressive when it comes to conflict. But I can write stories. Fantasy stories. Epic fantasy stories about black people. Good black people. Bad black people. Magicians. Warriors. Adventurers. People.

The only way to overcome the false narrative is to change it.

Every short story, every novel, every poem, every blog post, can be used to counteract the stereotypes that we as a black people live with daily. And it’s hard, because there are so many naysayers, both from outside and within, who say you can’t do that.

But I know it’s not true, because there’s me, and there are so many other black authors of fantasy. N. K. Jemisen. Nnedi Okorafor. Alaya Dawn Johnson. The more stories people read of us, the more the narrative changes into one that reflects truth:

that we are many, diverse, widespread and utterly,

utterly,

normal.


LaShawn M. Wanak‘s work can be found in Strange HorizonsIdeomancer, and Daily Science Fiction. She is a 2011 graduate of Viable Paradise and lives in Wisconsin with her husband and son. Writing stories keeps her sane. Also, pie.

LaShawn Wanak

Nobody’s Sidekick: Intersectionality in Protagonists – S. L. Huang

Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments and response to this first week of guest posts. I’m especially grateful to the writers for sharing such powerful, personal, and important stories. My plan is to take a week off, then come back with the next round of posts, just to break things up a little.

S. L. Huang addresses a common problem of representation: the idea that straying from the mainstream by more than one axis is too much, too implausible…especially for a protagonist. You can’t be too “different,” because you’ll knock readers out of the story.

Thank you, S. L. Huang, for dismantling that argument so well.


I’m a tangled intersection of underrepresented (female, nonwhite, queer, among others). Even before I had the vocabulary to express it, even before I had the self-awareness to acknowledge it, I remember always looking for people “like me” in media.

That’s not too surprising, is it?

It’s that same twinge of relating one feels when, say, seeing a nerd character who gets to be awesome in a story. I was always looking for those. But I also related to people who matched my identity in other ways—women, Asians, children of immigrants, people who struggled with their own inherited culture. And the older I got, and the more I gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy, the more it happened that the characters I related most to were always the side characters. The support. The ones who never got enough time for their own stories … or whose stories flat-out weren’t told.

I used to think this was just a product of my own preferences being off-beat. But over time I began to realize that the more dimensions of my identity a character matched, the further she was relegated from being a main character. From being important, a hero who would take the helm and drive the story into its own world’s legend.

It started to feel wrong, a piece of reality that kept wobbling like a busted chair leg.

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I sometimes call intersectionality “the problem of Star Trek captains.” We’ve had five series-leading captains: Kirk (white, male, American), Picard (white, male, European), Sisko (black, male, American), Janeway (white, female, American), and Archer (white, male, American). Not a single one differs in more than a single category from white, male, American.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with a captain who was female, half-human-Chinese-from-China, and half-Trill. And I wondered, as my teenaged self, why a series about a globalized Earth—one known for challenging barriers, no less—hadn’t had a similar one. The question made me itch under my skin in a way I couldn’t articulate at the time.

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“Nobody is a sidekick in their own life,” the saying goes, and growing up I’d never felt like one. In high school, I was bright, precocious, super excited about learning absolutely anything, and excessively opinionated. I never doubted I deserved a seat at the table.

Until I grew up. Gradually, the juxtaposition of my accomplishments with my intersectionality have begun giving me frissons of unreality, as if I’m a monkey playing the piano. I imagine I’m in a book or a movie seeing the moment my character is established: The only girl in the math seminar … who is also nonwhite and queer and will save the world!  The woman who outshoots all the men … who is also the Asian-American daughter of an immigrant and will be our Chosen Protagonist!  And I’m jolted out of the scene, the bulwark of traditional culture whispering “unrealistic” in my ear.

And I’m not the only one who’s been the girl in the math seminar, or the woman who can outshoot all the men. Not even close. My best mathematician friend is a woman who’s smarter than I am, and the last time I taught shooting the most advanced marksman was a markswoman who’d moved to the U.S. from Japan. There are lots of us, and we all kick more than enough ass to lead our own stories. The lack of fictional counterparts in SFFdom … it’s frustrating, and it sometimes makes me feel desperately lonely.

And angry.

And lonely.

Over and over, I’m constantly reminded that the mere fact of my existence is too brash and unusual and radical to be believable as a hero. In SFF worlds, where it seems every lead character is Extraordinary and Chosen and Destined … simply being born on more than one real-life minority axis is a bridge too far.

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“I’ll be your ethnic sidekick,” I said to my white friend, when she and I were planning to put together a webseries. I said it with a laugh and an eyeroll, in the way one does when one wants to mock something but is still too hesitant to challenge it. Serious-not-serious, funny-not-funny.

“Nah, nobody’s a sidekick,” my friend said. “We’re both too awesome.”

I will always love her for that.

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Zero Sum GameWhen I started the brainstorming process for what would eventually become my debut novel, I initially assumed I’d write my mathematically-superpowered lead character as a man. Probably a white man. Because … well, because. Something-something-mumble-blah about me being a nonwhite woman, and if I wrote my first lead as a nonwhite woman, no matter how different she was from me, wouldn’t that feel too contrived?

Because people from more than one underrepresented demographic are contrived.

Choosing to make my protagonist not only a woman, but a woman of color, felt … daring. Dangerous. Like people would find fault in her just for that. Not for any failures in writing or character, but for daring to exist, as a nonwhite woman leading her own story.

For existing.

I’m sitting here reading the history of my own thoughts and starting to cry. Because how many times have I looked at the television, or books, or movies, and wanted to scream, “I exist!”

I am the protagonist in my own life, in my own story. I am not anybody’s sidekick.

Neither are my characters. Neither are they.

I have now, thankfully, gotten over the knee-jerk reaction that every axis I assign to a character off the straight white able-bodied American male (etc) is somehow an additional layer of disbelief I’m asking my audience to suspend. That I must justify these choices. If I ever feel that urge, I remind myself I am a perfectly realistic person, someone whose birth needed no special reason.

And I do not need anyone’s permission to be a hero.

So I’m going to continue writing my main characters as nonwhite and female and queer and disabled and nonbinary and non-neurotypical and non-Western as I want, and cross these demographics with each other as much as I want, and make my characters drive their own stories just as much as I drive mine. Because we exist.

We exist.


SL “Lisa” Huang uses her MIT degree to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. Her short stories have sold to The Book Smugglers and Strange Horizons. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords, and online she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter.

SL Huang

Too Niche – Lauren Jankowski

“Like most asexuals, I spent a good portion of my life feeling broken.”

That’s the very first line of Lauren Jankowski‘s guest blog post. Think about that for a minute. Think about being one of those 1 in 100 people growing up with that message.

And it’s not even a lack of representation, exactly; it’s selective representation. Heroes have to have a romantic storyline. Villains, not so much.

Just let that sink in…


Like most asexuals, I spent a good portion of my life feeling broken. While watching a movie or devouring the fantasy novels I loved, I felt more like the villain than the hero. Not in philosophy or beliefs or actions, but being alone and not experiencing the same desires as heroes often do. The hero’s happily-ever-after almost always involves settling down with another person. Even if they fail to achieve that ending, the audience is made to root for that outcome. You read about the chemistry or sexual tension between characters. As a society, we’re made to want that happy ending: marriage, 2.5 kids, and an overall blissful family.

What about the archetypal villain? They tend to be alone (sometimes widowed, sometimes just because). Oh sure, they occasionally have henchmen, but more often than not, they’re isolated. Their arc tends to be opposite the hero’s, probably because their desires are meant to run counter. They don’t want people or family. They want power and control. This is especially true of women villains: just think of almost any Disney villainess.

Imagine being a teenager and everyone around you is sorting out their identities, discovering new labels and desires, and connecting with a community of people who share this label. Gay, straight, bi, or trans. Some of these terms are used in sex education, and all of them are found in U.S. popular culture. Learning these labels helps people discover who they are.

Now, imagine you don’t fit into any of these labels. You don’t fit into any of these communities. Imagine you can’t find a label for what you feel, your identity, because it doesn’t exist as far as you know. Imagine people telling you who you are, telling you that you’re going to fit into one of these groups eventually. Imagine that never happens.

That was the situation I found myself in: I was perfectly content with platonic friendships but experienced no sexual or romantic desire. Not even the typical crush teenagers are expected to have.  Everyone around me was pairing up, diving into relationships, and I was left feeling rather confused.

I turned to the fantasy novels I loved so much only to have them suddenly fail me. I searched desperately, often late into the night, my eyes and fingers darting over the tiny black print. “Please,” I would silently plea. “I don’t want to be alone. There must be someone like me. Someone who isn’t broken, twisted, and evil.”

There wasn’t, at least not any women. Every now and again, there would be an old white man who seemed to not experience any attraction (Tolkien’s Istari, Lloyd Alexander’s wizard, etc.). The few women found in these pages were either in a romantic relationship or evil. I was alone.

On a whim, I revisited some ancient myths and I found her. A woman who had always been there, but one who I hadn’t realized would become so important to me in the future. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, a woman who went out of her way to remain unattached. This powerful goddess specifically demanded that she not be romantically involved with any man. And Zeus, the King of the gods, agreed! He didn’t protest or suggest that perhaps she just “hadn’t found the right one.” He basically said, “Yeah, sure” and let her do her own thing. At last, a powerful woman who, like me, didn’t appear to experience sexual or romantic desire and was perfectly fine with that. There was hope!

The years went by and I continued to search through modern fantasy for a fellow asexual woman, even before I had the term for my orientation. Books blended together and my search continued to be fruitless. There just weren’t any modern asexual women in fantasy. Whenever I got frustrated with what seemed to be a pointless search, I always returned to stories about Artemis. Yeah, she did some pretty horrible things, but she was a goddess. All deities had their petty and vindictive moments.

DoomsdayAnd then I found Eden Sinclair in the movie Doomsday. Imagine my shock, sitting in a theater, watching a woman kick so much ass and experience little to no attraction to other characters in her story. She wasn’t evil, she wasn’t a villain. Sinclair was a tough-as-nails soldier who was there to get a job done. And she was an interesting character: an orphan (an adoptee like me), someone who was a mystery. Sinclair kept a cool head in hostile territory and outsmarted every opponent she encountered. There wasn’t a large audience in the theater, but I looked around anyway, curious what my fellow movie-goers thought.

I’ll never forget the feeling that bloomed in my chest when I saw how riveted the few people in the audience were. They were rooting for her. They were rooting for someone who was like me. It didn’t matter that she never flirted with the other characters. It didn’t matter that she was an archetypal lone wolf. She was a badass and the audience loved her for it. I think I may be the only person who got misty-eyed during Doomsday, a post-apocalyptic horror film with copious amounts of gore and violence.

As asexual visibility has gradually begun to form into a movement, there has been a predictable backlash. In genre, many creators have dug in their heels to resist the idea that so small a group needs representation. Whether it’s Stephen Moffat declaring Sherlock Holmes can’t be asexual because he’s too interesting, or the literary agent who told me “asexuality is too niche to move books,” ace phobia and the erasure of asexual voices and characters continues in genre.

When I came out as asexual, I decided to be as open as I could. I would wear my label proudly because it was who I was. Being naturally quiet and introverted by nature, this was a bit intimidating. Then I thought of other girls like me: alone and scared, desperately paging through the stories they loved in the hopes of finding someone like them and being disappointed.

Nobody deserves to feel alone or broken or invisible. People should never be labeled as too niche. Asexuals can be interesting and heroic and adventurous too.


Lauren Jankowski is an aromantic asexual fantasy author and a passionate genre feminist from Illinois. She’s the founder of Asexual Artists (on Tumblr and WordPress), a site dedicated to highlighting the work of asexual-identifying artists in all mediums. Author of the ongoing series The Shape Shifter Chronicles (Sere from the Green, Through Storm and Night, From the Ashes, Haunted by the Keres), she specializes in strong heroines and hopes to bring more badass women (including ace women) to the fantasy genre. She’s also still very much platonically enamored with Artemis.

Lauren Jankowski

Jim C. Hines