Guest Post

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.


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.


“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.


“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.


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 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

Discovering the Other – John G. Hartness

The guest posts so far have talked about representation in SF/F from the perspective of people seeing themselves–or not seeing themselves–in fiction. But of course, there’s more to it. John Hartness talks about growing up “whitebread,” and how fiction helped him start to consider other perspectives, and to develop a greater degree of empathy.

There are parts of this essay that were difficult to read. There are parts that made me angry. But I also think back to my own childhood, growing up in a time and place where kids played “smear the queer” at recess (designating one random kid as “the queer,” with the rest of the kids trying to tackle him) or thought nothing of chants like, “Fight, fight! The n****r and the white!”

It was messed up. And it’s hard to look back and talk about. Which is why I appreciate John’s honesty, his willingness to look back at that ugliness, and to recognize how stories helped him to humanize those others and change his own behavior.

What in the world is a straight, white, American male from the Southeastern United States doing writing an essay about “the other?” That’s very similar to a question I asked at a convention a year or so ago when I found myself on a panel titled “Writing the Other.” I sat there in front of a roomful of writers and asked why the straight white guy who wrote books about straight white guys was talking about the Other.

I’m about as un-other as you can get in my part of the world. I was raised Presbyterian, by two parents who still lived together. I am white, straight, and I went to college. If you throw out the part about growing up poor, it was pretty much a Beaver Cleaver upbringing, complete with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden novels. Even my reading material was whitebread!

Then I met Chris Claremont, and a little later, Mercedes Lackey. Not in person, but through their work. In 1986 Claremont was writing The Uncanny X-Men, and he, along with Louise and Walter Simonson, crafted the Mutant Massacre storyline, one of my favorite X-Men storylines to this day. It was a far-reaching crossover with massive character shifts that sent waves through the X-Universe that have been felt for the past 30 years. But that wasn’t the important part.

No, for me the important part was one five-panel scene in Uncanny X-Men #210, where Nightcrawler (the blue dude with the tail from the movies) is trapped in a warehouse by a mob that wants to beat him to death for being blue and scary-looking. Kitty Pryde, the young, pretty white girl X-Man, steps out of the shadows and calls the mob leader out on his BS while Colossus (in his non-metallic form) tries to reason with them. The dialogue in this scene opened my eyes to things I’d never considered.

Kitty: “Hey mister, who defines what’s human?”

Mob guy: “It’s obvious, girl. Just open your eyes.”

Kitty: “That simple, huh? Well, a whole chunk of my family was murdered in gas chambers because the Nazis said it was just as ‘obvious’ that Jews weren’t human. And not so long ago, in this country, people felt the same about blacks. Some still do. Is that right?!”

Kitty Pryde

Almost thirty years later, that’s the part that stuck with me. Growing up in rural South Carolina in the 70s and 80s, the Holocaust was something you learned about in History class. There was never a personal connection, because there were no Jewish families in my town. But here was a character that I had been reading for several years, telling me that her family was killed just for being Jewish.

That connected. It connected because I had never paid attention to Kitty Pryde’s Jewish heritage. I assumed she was like me, because she looked like me (only female and pretty). Suddenly I had a realization that these people I read about in history books were real people, and I got that understanding from a fictional character. Dear Alanis – that’s ironic.

But Claremont wasn’t my only teacher, and I certainly had more to learn. Late in high school, I was more immersed in fantasy literature than I had ever been before, on account of having a girlfriend who read the same stuff I did, and having a job to buy my own books. I think it was that same girlfriend who handed me a copy of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, and said “You have to read this.”

I trusted her taste. After all, I started going out with her because I saw her reading David Eddings’ Demon Lord of Karanda. So I read Magic’s Pawn, and I fell in love with Valdemar, a love affair that has lasted since that first day I sat down to read about Vanyel and Savil and poor doomed ‘Lendel.

Mercedes Lackey writes the doomed outsider teen as well as anyone I’ve ever read, and I was immediately wrapped up in the story of Vanyel. I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that he and Tylendel are both male, and in love. I cried like a baby at Tylendel’s death, and only later noticed that I had just wept for the death of an imaginary person that I would have likely made miserable had he ridden my school bus or been in my gym class.

Tylendel could have been anyone. He could have been the kid we called “fairy” on the bus and punched as he walked by, because he was slightly built and his voice hadn’t changed yet. He could have been Wayne, the pudgy kid down the road that we picked on for being a “band fag.” He could have been any number of real people in my life, and they could have been him. And what I said to them was just as cutting and hurtful as the words in those books. Those books didn’t transform me overnight, but they gradually opened my eyes to the consequences of my behavior, to the power words have. I started, ever so slowly, to change.

I couldn’t call someone “faggot” in the lunchroom anymore without thinking of how hurt Vanyel was by his father’s disapproval, and what kind of pain that kid might be going through at home. I couldn’t make cheap Jew jokes without thinking about how that casual cruelty and dehumanization led to things like the Holocaust and lynchings in my own county. Lackey and Claremont taught me that no matter how different I am from someone, there is a common thread, a connection to be made, if I’m brave enough to let it.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn from a bully into a saint; it was more like turning from a nerd into a slightly more understanding nerd. But I’d like to think that my friends who live somewhere else on the rainbow know that I’ve got their back. And I have a gay wizard and a Jewish mutant to thank for it. As always, I thank Chris Claremont and Mercedes Lackey for their characters that changed my life.

John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his ridiculous podcast Literate Liquors, where he pairs book reviews and alcoholic drinks in new and ludicrous ways. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.

Patreon | Facebook | Twitter

John Hartness

I’m Not Broken – Annalee Flower Horne

Annalee Flower Horne’s essay talks about the portrayal of sexual assault survivors in SF/F. While not graphic in detail, I thought a content warning was appropriate. As she notes, it’s not that our genre never writes about assault; it’s that we tend to do it badly.

I’ve always appreciated Princess Leia as an amazing character, but I’d never considered how powerful her portrayal and story might be to a child survivor. After reading this, I doubt I’ll ever look at Leia in the same way.

When I was a kid, I loved Princess Leia.

She was smart and capable; a leader and a hero. And unlike Luke and Han, I could see myself in her. We were both girls.

We were also both assault survivors.

The original trilogy was on a lot in my house. I saw the Twi’lek dancer pulling away from Jabba with terror in her eyes. I saw Leia in that humiliating bikini. I knew what it meant.

These days, I’m mostly just disgusted with how the movie (and the fandom) handled it, but child-me wasn’t disgusted.

LeiaChild-me saw an assault survivor who still got to be a badass. Leia left Tatooine and returned to her life as a leader of the rebellion. No one treated her differently or told her she couldn’t do the things the boys do because someone might rape her. At the end of the movie, she got the dashing rogue and the happy ending.

I wanted to be just like her.

It may seem weird to talk about sexual assault for a series about representation, because sexual assault survivors are all over genre fiction. Jim has written about how much of a cliché it is, and TV Tropes has an extensive list of examples. But seeing representations that bear so little resemblance to your actual experience is damaging. Especially when so many of those representations portray people like you as fundamentally broken.

That’s pretty much the life of a sexual assault survivor in fiction. We don’t get to be the hero. We get to be brutally raped by the villain, leaving the hero—not us, mind you; the hero—scarred and hell-bent on avenging our virtue.

There’s also the trope where writers throw a little agency our way, and we get to avenge our own virtue—but that’s all we get to do. Our entire lives revolve around a thing that was done to us, to which the only “proper” response is murderous rage and possibly world domination.

I used to wonder if I was really a survivor, because I never tried to kill my attacker. He lived in my neighborhood. We made polite conversation at the park, and it was awkward as hell, but I never wanted to hurt him.

I certainly never tried to take over the world. I really don’t know where writers get the idea that sexual assault causes sociopathy in survivors, but it’s lazy bullshit and I wish that trope would just die already.

A lot of folks have suggested that all rape and survivor tropes should just die already. I remember reading one article suggesting that every time a woman on a TV show is raped, a male character should get his balls cut off, for parity.

It took me a long time to unpack why that bothered me, but it comes down to this: I have not been maimed. Popular media often drastically underplays how awful rape is, but it also overplays the fallout. I don’t want to dismiss survivors who really do end up with acute stress disorder and severe PTSD. We need to hear those stories, because the people living them need to know they’re not alone.

But that’s not always how the story goes. One out of every five women is an assault survivor. If you think every woman you know has beaten those odds, it may be because survivors don’t look and act like you think we will. Many survivors get on with our lives. We manage as well as we can. We heal.

For me, the effects have always been subtle. There are books I won’t read and shows and movies I won’t watch. I have a phobia you’d never guess was related to having been assaulted unless I told you.

I show up at work early, because we have open seating, and I want to be sure to get one of the desks with the wall behind it so people can’t get behind me without passing through my peripheral vision first.

I’m happily married, with a steady job and a lot of friends. I build cool stuff and have too many fandoms, and don’t actually spend a whole lot of time thinking about that thing that happened when I was a kid. I wrote most of this post while pacing around my neighborhood alone after midnight, because I know where monsters lurk, and it isn’t the damn bushes.

I still want to see survivors in fiction. I just want them to be whole people. They should have goals and dreams and inner lives that don’t revolve around that one thing that was done to them. They should get to be heroes, villains, lovers, and liars without anyone reducing them to their survivor status.

These days, I understand that this isn’t what Lucasfilm was going for with Leia. Like so many survivors in fiction, her story was only important when the film could pass it off as sexy. Reducing her to her survivor status would have ruined the bikini shot.

I’m glad child-me didn’t get that. I’m glad I was able to project onto Leia the capable survivor I wanted to grow up to be. Her happy ending mattered to me, because it helped me imagine my own.

But now that I’m living that happy ending, I want more than to see my heroes completely stripped of agency for cheap fanservice. I want to see what child-me saw in Leia: survivors who get to save the day, fall in love, and experience the whole range of human emotions without anyone—including the narrator—treating them like they’re broken.

Annalee Flower Horne is an open-source developer and science fiction writer from Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter, her website, and the Geek Feminism blog. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Fat Chicks in SFF – Alis Franklin

One of the things I loved about this series last year was that it made me think. Each essay pointed out things I’d never considered, or helped me to get a better understanding of other people’s experiences. This year’s essays are no different.

In reading Alis Franklin‘s post, one of the things that stood out for me was a comment toward the end. She talks about how it’s easy not to think representation matters when you see yourself in so many stories that you don’t comprehend what it’s like to not see that reflection…but that it’s also easy to think it doesn’t matter when you never see yourself. Because your invisibility becomes “normal,” and it never even occurs to you that it could or should be any different.

I was in high school. I had glasses, dead-straight straw-brown hair with bangs a decade out of fashion, and a tendency to wear too-big tie-died t-shirts featuring screen prints of aliens and dragons. I was good at English, bad at Math, terrible at sport, and spent most lunchtimes playing games with colons in the name, like Magic: the Gathering and Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

In other words, it was the 90s, I was a nerd, and I knew I was never going to be a hero.

Don’t get me wrong. This latter realization wasn’t because of the bookishness, the bad fashion sense, or even my complete inability to run or catch or throw. It wasn’t because I had no friends. I had plenty (all the better to play TCGs and RPGs with). I wasn’t because I was bullied (I wasn’t), or didn’t date (I did).

It wasn’t even because I was a girl. Well, not really. At least, that was only half of it.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? I knew, at the tender age of thirteen, that I would never be a hero because I was a girl, and I was fat.


There are no fat chicks in SFF. And by “SFF” I’m including the broad tent of my teenage nerdish interests: sci-fi and fantasy novels and TV shows and films, yes. But also video games, comic books, trading card games, horror, urban fantasy, roleplaying games. The works. There might as well have been a great big NO FAT CHICKS sign hanging outside the entrance. And me, peering in through the flaps, loving the show but always knowing I would never, ever be it.

There are no fat chicks in SFF.

There are geeks, sure. Geeks a-plenty, and I loved the Willows and the Mizuno Amis as much as the next bookish loser. But Ami wore a sērā fuku and Willow cosplayed a vampire by putting on skintight leather pants. All it took was one look from that to my own chubby knees to realize that would never, ever be me. The geeks might inherit the Earth, but–for women, at least–they had to look hot while they did it.

(Years later, I found out about “fat Willow,” the version of the character that appeared in Buffy’s original pilot. By that stage, the fact that actress Riff Regan had been replaced by waifish Alyson Hannigan for the “real” show wasn’t enough to elicit much more than a resigned sigh.)

Books were worse. Even before I knew phrases like “male gaze” I was rolling my eyes over the endless litany of SFF heroines with an obsession for describing their cup size in extravagant detail. I didn’t think much about cup size as a teen, but I sure did think about my muffin top and double chin and bingo wings, and how it would be nice to once–just once–read about someone who had all of those and yet still saved the world.

Boys had it better. Not great, admittedly, but better. Weight in male characters can be a marker for the down-to-earth everyman (the Bilbos of the fantasy world), or can go hand-in-hand with power, both in the physical (Broadway from Gargoyles) and political (Londo Mollari, anyone?) sense. There’s certainly an argument about the limited roles fat guys are found in–comic relief, “the heavy,” older mentors–but at least more than one of them exists.

Fat chicks get Dolores Umbridge; the “toad-like” sadist, whose attempts at femininity and beauty are there to emphasize the horror of her perversion of the mother archetype embodied by “acceptable” fat characters like Molly Weasley. Ditto The Little Mermaid’s Ursula (anti-mother), or Discworld’s Nanny Ogg (mother). Don’t get me wrong, I love Ursula and Nanny as much as anyone, but I was thirteen and much too young to be trapped into an adult woman’s archetype. Meaning I would’ve loved someone my own age as well as build to look up to.

I got one, after a fashion, in 1995, when Terry Pratchett introduced Agnes Nitt. Agnes, like Nanny, is a talented witch … one whose primary talent–resistance to mental manipulation–is predicated on her hostile relationship to her own fatness. Agnes’ unhappiness with her weight has given her a split personality: Perdita X Dream, her “inner thin girl.” When Agnes loses control, such as when being hypnotized by vampires, Perditia  takes over.

You can be fat (I guess), and you can save the world (once or twice), but gods forbid you be happy while you do it.


Around the same time Agnes Nitt was making her entrance on paper, MTV made an animated adaptation of Sam Kieth’s comic, The Maxx. It’s a semi-surrealist superhero deconstruction, and though it never quite got the momentum that the Frank Millers and Alan Moores of the world did, I loved it.

I loved it because of Sarah. Because, for the first time, I’d seen myself.

Sarah is a geek and a loser. She wore the same big, round glasses, the same oversized sweaters and shapeless jeans, had the same mess of un-styled (albeit curly) hair. She wanted to be a writer, like me, was standoffish and vulnerable, like me, and–most importantly–she was fat.

Just like me.

Sarah - Maxx

And yet, Sarah’s narrative arc doesn’t revolve around her weight. On her outsider status, yes, but she’s no Agnes; cast a skinny chick in Sarah’s role and her plot would be unchanged. Except Sarah wasn’t skinny.

She wasn’t helpless, either. Sarah is one of the protagonists, one of the characters who both moves the action and through whom the action moves. She’s flawed and imperfect, dealing with problems both mundane (depression, a fraught relationship with her mother) and fantastic (her father is a semi-dead rapist sorcerer who dwells outside reality). She’s lonely and angry and awkward, yet the narrative doesn’t deny her humanity or her importance. Sarah is, in other words, a hero in the context of the story in which she’s placed.

And, as a teenager, I identified with her. Hard. Because she was someone I knew I had the potential to be. Someone I wanted to have the potential to be, warts and all.

In the twenty years since I first saw Sarah, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve identified so hard with a fictional character. Sarah’s who I think about in conversations about diversity and representation, particularly when anyone dismisses the idea as unimportant. Because, thing is? If I hadn’t had a Sarah, I’d probably think representation was unimportant, too. It’s an easy position to take, not just when you’re so used to seeing yourself everywhere you don’t know what it’s like not to, but also when you’re so used to not seeing yourself that it doesn’t occur to you things can be so radically different when you do.


So. This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you it gets better. Because I was a fat girl, into SFF, and I found my One True Representation, and it changed my life. That’s, how this goes, right?

Yeah. Right.

Thing is, it didn’t get better. I had Sarah and her rage and Agnes and her body hatred, and they were one of only a handful of characters who looked like me in an ocean of others who did not. Because there are no fat chicks in SFF, except for when there are. But how statistically insignificant does that number need to be before people will allow the hyperbole? We can test it, you and I. We’ll play a game. You name a fat woman from a videogame, comic book, fantasy, or sci-fi title, and I’ll name six thin chicks and a fat guy. Who do you think’s gonna run out of examples first?

I don’t have any answers here, no uplifting mortal. Only anger, and a rallying cry. I want more fat women in genre fiction. I want fat women whose narratives don’t revolve around their being fat, and whose fatness is not used as a lazy shorthand for mothers or for monsters.

I can’t turn back the clock and force things to be better. I can’t be a teenager again, watching the same shows and reading the same books, but this time finding them populated by big girls who laugh and love and fight and save the world. Whose big bodies are symbols of beauty and of power, not shameful obstacles to overcome. I can’t do that. But I can say there are girls out there now, girls with muffin tops and bingo wings and chunky knees, and they’re looking for heroes of their very own.

And I can ask you, oh fearless reader, what you plan to do to help them.

Alis Franklin is a thirtysomething Australian author of queer urban fantasy. She likes cooking, video games, Norse mythology, and feathered dinosaurs. She’s never seen a live drop bear, but stays away from tall trees, just in case.

Exponentially Hoping – Merc Rustad

Last February, I started running a series of guest posts about the importance of representation in SF/F. These essays were eventually collected into Invisible.

I was talking to a friend about last year’s collection, and he talked about struggling a bit with a kind of gut-level defensiveness, like some of these stories almost felt like accusations. And maybe they are. Not accusations that we’ve deliberately set out to hurt or exclude anyone. But instead pointing out a painful truth: that we’ve overlooked people. We haven’t seen them, and thus we’ve unthinkingly excluded them from our stories and our worldview.

I don’t think of these essays as accusations. It’s not about making anyone feel guilty. It’s about seeing. It’s about understanding. It’s about learning. It’s about all of the things that good stories are supposed to do.

This first essay comes from Merc Rustad and talks about that feeling of exclusion. About growing up with the message that you were “different,” and feeling like those differences needed to be destroyed so you could fit yourself into one of the rigidly defined gender and sexual boxes our stories and our society presented.

There’s this sickening feeling I get when presented with a form–no matter what it’s for–that demands you check one of two boxes: male or female. There’s no third option. There’s no blank space to write “other.” Those two little boxes, with no alternatives (and an inability to leave them blank) send a very specific message: if you don’t pick one, you don’t exist.


I grew up in a highly conservative, Christian, insular community. It did not precisely foster a sense of understanding or tolerance of anything Other. If you weren’t a straight, cis, neurotypical, able-bodied (ideally male) member of society locked into rigid gender roles, well, then what the fuck were you? You obviously weren’t a person. I was suffocating; I didn’t belong and everything around me was holding up giant neon signs that flashed messages like “obviously you’re female since you were born with a vagina” and “no, you can’t be a boy, you don’t look like one” and “there’s no such thing as someone who’s not binary-gendered, stop lying.”

I knew something was different. For most of my life, I thought those differences needed to be destroyed.

Books and movies were an escape–especially science fiction and fantasy. Here were vehicles into whole new worlds where anything was possible. Maybe there would be people who felt like I did: not a girl, not entirely a boy, not explicitly attracted aesthetically to one gender, not agreeing with an arbitrary sex assigned at birth. I devoured speculative fiction in equal parts adoration and desperation. I wanted to find things that could show me how to cope with the reality I lived in.

What I never quite grokked, early on, was why everyone seemed to be binary gendered, cis, and straight. “He” and “she” were the mainstay pronouns. Men were attracted to women, and women to men. Crossdressing was either dramatic disguise or comedy. Everyone agreed with their birth-assigned pronouns. I was constantly confused by this. It just did not click for me why the inevitable pair-up was man + woman.

I was dragged to a conference once when I was in my early teens–I don’t even remember what it was about, other than it was religious-based–and the speaker showed a photo of two gay men kissing. The audience was horrified. Very vocally. I sat there going, “But it’s so sweet! Why is everyone upset?” and started panicking because I seemed to be the only one who wasn’t bothered by the photo. For the first time, I was afraid I would be attacked or worse because I didn’t think the way the people around me did.

I was looking for something in fiction beyond that “normal” that was presented everywhere, only for a long long time, I didn’t know what it was I needed. I liked buddy cop movies and team movies, and since they were mainly all men, I started wondering why the guys didn’t get together. It just seemed like a natural trajectory, you know? Why did so few people agree with me?


It took until I was in my early twenties before I discovered there were words to describe my identity–words like non-binary and trans* and queer. I remember looking at a list of diverse writers on Bogi Takács’ website, and specifically noticing the word neutrois. I looked it up.

“Neutrois is a non-binary gender identity that falls under the genderqueer or transgender umbrellas.”

Fucking epiphany, you guys. I stared at that website and started crying. I was so happy. So fucking relieved that there was actually a way to describe myself–and that there were other people out there who were like me. It’s like being able to breathe for the first time in your life.

I started thinking maybe I wasn’t irreparably broken.


I love SF/F. It’s my genre and it has so many amazing stories and possibilities. Sure, there are problems and not all stories are perfect. But there’s so much potential out there. We all crave stories; we want to see ourselves represented, especially in positive ways. Happy endings shouldn’t be reserved for the straight people.

But when you never see yourself, when you look and look and find nothing, it strengthens the doubts that society and “real life” have already imprinted: you shouldn’t exist.

It’s bullshit, of course, because YES YOU DO DESERVE TO EXIST. And to be happy and safe. You. Yes, you.


I wrote “How To Become A Robot In 12 Easy Steps” while mired in a vicious cycle of believing I didn’t deserve anything good precisely because I didn’t fit a cis/het/binary mold. I needed to speak up and tell a story that I wasn’t seeing and needed to know existed. It was that or disappear.

I’m humbled and grateful when I hear from people who connected with it. I realized, then, I can write things that give other people hope. And that is a powerful realization. If my small contribution can help someone else know they are not alone, then it’s worth all the struggle to put words down and send them out.

Until very recently, I haven’t felt like there was the possibility for non-binary characters to exist, let alone to be happy. I’m most involved and interested in short fiction and film, and while I feel film tends to lag behind prose in terms of gender and sexuality, short stories right now are blooming. (For example: “This Shall Serve As A Demarcation” by Bogi Takács, or “On Shine Wings” by Polenth Blake, or “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg.)

There have been movements and stirrings and rumblings in the genre to be more inclusive of diversity, and despite those who protest and frantically try to keep SFF a staid, unchanging monolith–change is happening. And it’s glorious.

When I think about how much younger!Merc desperately needed any hint that there were people like them out there, when I think of how happy I get now seeing non-binary people represented in fiction (and in positive ways!), I’m reminded why my voice–why all marginalized voices–matters. Why we are all needed.

I want to create a genre where kids like me won’t have to suffer and yearn for representation in what they read or watch. I believe every positive, respectful portrayal of characters of all sorts of diversities multiplies hope exponentially. And we need that.

One day, perhaps there will be infinite boxes, or an option not to check off boxes at all. Until then, we have stories we can tell ourselves and each other, and the more welcoming and wondrous those stories are, the better it is for everyone. We all need hope, in the end.

Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Vitality Magazine. When not buried in the homework mines or dayjobbery, Merc likes to play video games, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website.

Merc Rustad

Guest Post: Lesley Smith on Disability in Fiction

I first “met” Changing of the SunLesley Smith a year and a half ago, while looking for beta readers for a short story. Lesley is also an author herself. Her book The Changing of the Sun came out this month, and she’s currently working on a Kickstarter for the second book in the series, The Parting of the Waters.

Her guest post is about disability in fiction, and about her own choices along those lines as a writer.


One of the great maxims told to newbie writers is ‘write what you know’. I’m never sure if that’s true, but it’s a good a place to start as any. To understand my writing, you need to know that I was born with a visual impairment caused from wanting to get into the world at twenty four weeks, rather than the usual forty. Too much oxygen left me with brain damage, Asperger’s and, most obviously, a visual disability. I’m blind in one eye and so short sighted in my left that I’m functionally useless outside without a long cane or my beloved guide dog, Unis.

When I started writing The Changing of the Sun, I’d just finished Camp NaNoWriMo and was itching to write anything but the project I’d put aside at fifty thousand words: an urban scifi about an alien priestess trying to solve a murder while an engineered plague began decimating London’s alien community.

I realised I couldn’t write this story before I’d set up the one which forged my protagonist, or at least her past selves and her civilisation. I knew the basics: an alien world devastated by a solar storm, an order of blind seers who ruled in wisdom and passed the mantle down through centuries, and great adversity tempered by common sense and the desire to survive the impossible. I started writing and the short story became a novella, then a proper novel. Just over a year and a Kickstarter later, I’ve just unleashed that novel on the world.

Key to the universe in which the Changing trilogy is set is disabled characters being more than just set pieces. There might be miracles, but curing disabilities isn’t one of them. Yes, the oracles have lost their vision, but like Odin and Tiresias, they’ve gained something in exchange. However, this doesn’t mean an easy ride. Far from it. Having a disability doesn’t give you an instant pass and the people aren’t there to be inspirational … they’re just trying to get through the day.

For example, the stereotype of a blind person is that they are a) totally blind and b) have heightened senses. This is rubbish. All is means is that most blind people have some useful vision and that we pay more attention; I have better hearing than you simply because I don’t have as much visual noise that prevents me focusing.

Saiara, the POV character, is blinded as part of a ritual gone wrong. She finds herself banished to a shabby tower where the blind oracles are kept locked away, too close to the divine to be allowed near the populace except on the high holy days. The powers don’t want them to be self-reliant or capable of surviving without servants, guards and being beholden to the High Chamberlain’s ‘compassion’. There’s the elderly Eirian, the former ruler of the planet, who is coming to the end of her life, and is just trying to keep their collapsing ordering intact so someone is left to lead even as she goes to her grave. She tries to teach every woman in her care how to go beyond their blindness, to find their way, to use their other senses, to regain power in a place which would rather they be powerless.

Back when I was writing Changing, I read an excellent post on this very blog and it made me decide that if there was one rule I was going to stick to, it was that if you lost a limb, nothing could restore it to you. You might lose your vision and gain the grace of knowledge, but you’d still be blind, still be lost in a world not designed to help you or make allowances for your disability. This makes the idea of an exodus north, though the desert with limited supplies and the thinning ranks of a sacred order of blind women, much more complicated.

One of the biggest scenes involves Jeiana, one of these alien beings incarnated as a Kashinai woman, having her writing hand amputated after a tiny scratch turns septic. She’s borrowed the body of a woman who drowned at the beginning of the book and has been slowly losing her sense of self, almost like a kind of dementia. When she collapses, her lover, the healer Senara, has to make the decision between Jeiana’s life and the infected limb.

The problem is, because Jeiana is slowly forgetting who she is, a side-effect of her corporeal state, she has been trying to write down all the secrets she has brought with her from beyond their little world. Losing her hand means she can’t record the words for posterity, and there comes a point where the fate of an entire planet relies on Senna’s decision. While Jeiana eventually gains an amanuensis, she is never able to write, and the loss of her hand forces her to have to relearn how to walk, how to move and live with a limb which stops just above her elbow, suffering phantom pain from the amputated limb that she doesn’t really remember losing.

I wanted to have empowered characters who accurately reflected my own view of the world. Jeiana, Saiara, Eirian, Lyse and the others are not there to be pitied. They might not always know the answers or have an easy ride but they’re stronger for every trial. They are not there to be tokens or to make up the numbers but to reflect that just as the world is full of people with disabilities, so alien worlds should have their share of differently abled individuals.

Encouraging Everyday Diversity (Guest Post by Rose Lemberg)

Rose Lemberg was born in Ukraine, and lived in subarctic Russia and Israel before immigrating to the US. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. She edits Stone Telling with Shweta Narayan. Rose has also edited two anthologies: Here, We Cross, a collection of queer and genderfluid poetry from Stone Telling (Stone Bird Press, 2012) and The Moment of Change, an anthology of feminist speculative poetry (Aqueduct Press 2012). Rose can be found at, Livejournal, and Twitter.

Her newest project, An Alphabet of Embers, will be a professional-paying anthology of “unclassifiables – lyrical, surreal, magical, experimental pieces that straddle the border between poetry and prose.” As of today, it’s within a few hundred dollars of being fully funded.

I’m happy to welcome Rose to the blog to talk about diversity and what looks like a beautiful project.


An Alphabet of Embers - Kickstarter ImageI am very grateful to Jim Hines, who invited me to write about everyday diversity in connection with my new editorial project, An Alphabet of Embers.

Fundraising for diverse anthologies has become something of a trend in SFF, with wonderful, successful projects such as Long Hidden and Kaleidoscope, and painful failures such as Spellbound/Spindles. In the best case scenarios, editors are clueful about encouraging a truly diverse pool of submitters, and choose brilliant stories to challenge and inspire readers; worst case scenarios leave behind them disappointment and bitterness. Since I am currently fundraising for a new fiction project, An Alphabet of Embers, this topic has been much on my mind.

An Alphabet of Embers does not have the word “diverse” in its subtitle. I have envisioned the project as an anthology of very short, surrealist, magical, lyrical pieces that would delight their readers with beauty and meaning. I did, however, end up talking about diversity a lot in conjunction with this project – everyday diversity, which is the topic of my blog post today.

I co-edit Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry, with Shweta Narayan. When I founded Stone Telling in 2010, I did not envision the magazine as specifically a diversity venue – but I wanted personal, emotional, experimental poetry that pushed the boundaries of genre. I also knew from the get-go that I wanted diversity of both voice and theme – I wanted to work with more PoC poets, more LGBTQIA poets, and others; I wanted to encourage new poets and discover published voices unknown to me, alongside those already established. So, from the very first issue, diversity became a cornerstone of Stone Telling. Not only did we encourage, and continue to encourage, new voices, but we also showcased voices of people who’ve been in genre for a very long time and deserve much greater recognition; e.g., it baffles me why JT Stewart is not more widely known – her work is so powerful.

An Alphabet of Embers is my first prose project. While it is not a diversity-themed anthology, I strongly feel that every project of mine must be diverse (c.f. not only Stone Telling, but The Moment of Change and Here, We Cross), showcasing a range of marginalized as well as non-marginalized voices. While I strongly believe in the power of special issues, I feel that everyday diversity is extremely important.

Here are some thoughts of how to cultivate everyday diversity:

Trust. The more marginalized an author is, the harder this trust is to come by. Even the most well-meaning editors don’t always get your marginalizations; every diverse author I talked to has a horror story of a personal rejection that perpetuated oppressions, of a lack of understanding of harmful clichés, of dismissiveness.

Earning your readers’ and submitters’ trust doesn’t mean that you don’t fuck up. It’s impossible to never fuck up, or at least, I don’t think it is a worthwhile aspiration. It’s the reaction to being called out that matters. My advice to editors is this: don’t get defensive, don’t try to explain/justify what you did. Instead – listen. Consider. Go for some empathy. Talk to others – especially people from demographics different from you. Educate yourself about issues that matter to people different from yourself.

Trust is built through your work – your work with submitters, whether you accept or reject them, and the finished products you put out into the world. Your finished products will speak to your principles and your editorial aesthetic. Your body of work – as an editor, writer, speaker – keeps building up. Trust is organic and evolving.

Accept that diversity is not a zero-sum game. This applies to readers, writers, and editors alike. We benefit from a greater variety of voices, writing, publications, venues – and this growth in the field challenges us as editors and writers to do better. (I am hoping to write more about this topic soon).

Consider issues of power. Who benefits from your editorial work? Whose voices are you showcasing? Whose voices are missing from your work? What are you missing, as a reader as well as an editor? Do you stick to comfortable and/or hegemonic narratives, or are you willing to challenge yourself?

Make an effort to include diversity of voice and theme. Diversity of voice is about including authors from different demographics – authors of color and white authors, authors who identify as LGBTQIA and those who do not, neuroatypical and neurotypical authors, etc. Diversity of theme is about showcasing characters who belong to different demographics, as well as different cultural settings. When we limit ourselves to diversity of theme alone, we may get things like all-man panels on feminism in genre. When we limit ourselves to diversity of voice alone, we run the risk of making marginalized people write only about non-marginalized perspectives; e.g. a queer author would make it into a ToC, but only if they write about straight people. A mix between theme and voice also helps to avoid tokenization.

I have written two more entries on this topic:

The submission guidelines for An Alphabet of Embers are here. We have some fabulous rewards, like custom essays and poetry, an additional chapbook of science poetry featuring forgotten figures of science and technology, custom treasure boxes, songs, and more; and we will soon unveil stretch goals with letterpress-printed broadsides, illustrations, a song by the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and  a joke issue of Stone Telling! If you’re looking for beauty and wonder, An Alphabet of Embers is for you.

Non-binary and Not Represented – Morgan Dambergs

In part of her introductory essay on non-binary gender in SF/F, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote about Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, noting that it has become the, “go-to book for mind-blowing gender in SF, despite being written in 1968. Nothing written in the decades since has got the same traction.” Le Guin herself has written about her choices in that novel, and acknowledged that there are ways in which she fell short of her goal and failed to create a truly agender society.

Bookseller Morgan Dambergs talks about the very few books that acknowledge non-binary gender at all, and reiterates that what they are asking for isn’t to be included in Every Single Story, but simply to be acknowledged, and for the genre “to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien.”

I am genderqueer—agender, specifically—and at thirty-one, I have yet to read a novel that features an agender character. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising to me: in the last decade or so, I’ve read more than two hundred science fiction and fantasy books, and only three have included non-binary characters at all. I think that lack of representation has a lot to do with why it took me twenty-one years to find out that non-binary identities exist, and why it’s only been in the last six months that I’ve finally accepted my own genderqueer identity as real and something I’m allowed to express.

When I was nineteen, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I remember being very interested in the Gethenians, a species of humanoids that spend most of their lives sexless and genderless. But a mild fascination was as far as it ever went for me; there was never any sense of identification. There are two reasons why The Left Hand of Darkness failed to resonate with me. First, when I read the book, I had never yet heard the words “genderqueer” or “non-binary” or even “genderfuck,” or heard of anyone who identified as anything other than binary male or female. I had no lexicon to help me drawn a connection between the genderless Gethenians and my lifelong discomfort at with treated as either purely female or purely male. As far as I knew, there was no human experience comparable to how the Gethenians lived. For example, except during their monthly breeding period called kemmer, Gethenians don’t have any genitalia, so they’re not assigned a gender at birth. Our world, on the other hand, had made it clear that because I was assigned female at birth, I had two options: “stay” female (I didn’t have the word “cisgender” yet either) or “become” a transgender man. Since my biology and society were not and could never be like the Gethenians, the genderlessness of Gethen life never amounted to more than a pleasant thought experiment for me.

My second issue with the book was the human protagonist, Genly Ai. Genly is a cisgender male who finds the genderless Gethenians completely baffling, and spends much of the novel arbitrarily labelling them masculine or feminine to make himself more comfortable. I realize that Le Guin was trying to use Genly’s prejudices to point out the arbitrariness of that kind of labelling. But like the human protagonists in many SF and F stories, Genly is also intended to be the readers’ entry point into Le Guin’s speculative world. His point of view is the one meant to ease us into and explain the stranger aspects of the Gethenians—not least their lack of gender. When you’re a human being who is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to choose between being exclusively male or exclusively female, and your first introduction to the idea of a genderless society is from the point of view of a human who can’t wrap his head around how anyone could ever be truly genderless, it’s pretty, well, alienating.

And then there are the other two books I mentioned. The first is Valentine by S. P. Somtow, the second book in one of my favourite horror trilogies. The book’s non-binary character is named PJ Gallagher. He identifies as cisgender male in the first and third books of the trilogy, but becomes temporarily (and mystically) non-binary as part of the plot of Valentine. PJ accepts his transformation gracefully, as do his fellow protagonists, and he’s not treated like a freak. But he does ultimately identify as a cisgender man, not as a non-binary and/or genderqueer person, so there’s little about his experience of non-binariness that matches up with mine. PJ’s non-binariness is fleeting, not a journey and a struggle he’s been going through all his life. Also, PJ is from a half-Shoshone background, and Somtow misappropriates a real non-binary Shoshone identity, called “berdache,” to describe PJ. My understanding is that being berdache is a lifelong identity, not a temporary one. I can only imagine that PJ’s portrayal must be infuriating and hurtful to anyone who identifies as berdache in real life.

The second book is Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi, which is no less problematic. The non-binary characters are based on the Hijra, a real third sex—neither male nor female—that has long existed in parts of the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. My understanding is that, like Somtow’s misuse of “berdache,” Thompson’s idea of what it means to be Hijra has little to do with the lives of real Hijra people, especially in the modern day.

The Hijra in Habibi take in Zam, an adolescent boy who is one of the book’s two protagonists. Under their care, Zam becomes a eunuch (a practice that is not especially common amongst real-life Hijra) and is taught how to live and work within their communal home. When Zam eventually rejects them and runs away, he talks about feeling disgusted and regretful that he “ruined” his body in trying to become one of them.

It’s hard to put into words just how much that bothered me—and again, the portrayal must be so much more hurtful to anyone who self-identifies as Hijra. I can’t speak as a Hijra; but I can say as an agender person that, although I don’t deny being genderqueer has made my life more difficult, I also don’t regret growing up to be the person I am. I definitely don’t pine for the cisgender woman I could maybe, potentially, have been. And I’ve read nothing that implies the average Hijra feels any less comfortable with their non-binariness than I do with mine. That makes Zam’s arc little more than a twist on the old “gay recruitment” scare story: an innocent young boy becomes trapped in the clutches of the twisted Hijra, who coerce him into becoming one of them—and it ruins his life forever!!! (Yeah, ’cause that’s not horrible or marginalizing or written from a place of extreme cis privilege.)

So let’s recap real quick. Of the three books I’ve read in the last eleven years that include non-binary characters, one features non-binary aliens who are painted as too alien for me to find identifiable; one has a character who self-identifies as cisgender male but becomes non-binary very briefly for a specific, mystical purpose; and the third treats its non-binary characters as manipulative, pathetic and/or self-hating.

Not much to work with, really, is it?

I followed the comments on Alex Dally MacFarlane’s introductory post for her series on non-binary characters closely. One of the most frustrating arguments I encountered is that because some SF and F stories featuring non-binary characters have already been written, there’s no need to spend time talking about them. The people making that argument seem to feel that all the books need to do is exist and the people who need them most will find them somehow. But I’ve been in need of those stories for as long as I can remember and have been actively searching for them for close to a decade. So far, with no resources at all to point me in the right direction, The Left Hand of Darkness, Valentine and Habibi are all I’ve managed to turn up.

When I was younger, reading about shy and introverted characters helped me feel like I wasn’t the only shy, introverted person alive in the world, and like those traits were just personality differences, not flaws I had to fix. I have every reason to believe that, if I’d had the chance to read more books about non-binary characters as a teen or young adult, I could have understood and accepted my agender identity many years ago. That’s why the discussion of non-binary genders in the science fiction and fantasy community is so important to me. Drawing attention to—maybe even inspiring authors to write more—SF and F novels that include non-binary characters can potentially change the lives of real non-binary people for the better. We’re not demanding to be included in every single science fiction and fantasy story ever written from now on. But asking the science fiction and fantasy community to acknowledge our existence, to no longer assume the gender binary is the default, to treat us in stories and in life as regular human beings rather than oddities or jokes or something purely alien—I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.

Morgan Dambergs runs a very small used bookstore in their hometown of Halifax, Canada. They spend much (though never enough) of their free time reading and writing speculative fiction. They hope to someday publish some fantasy and horror novels, which will, naturally, include both non-binary and binary characters.

Representation without Understanding – Derek Handley

I really appreciate Derek Handley talking about the difference between lack of representation and poor or lazy representation. As writers, research is important. It’s not enough to just decide a character is in a wheelchair without considering why, or how that affects their day-to-day life. As with so many of these essays, this post has given me a lot to think about as a writer.

Tomorrow, Morgan Dambergs will bring this whole series full circle, talking about non-binary gender and referencing the Alex Dally MacFarlane post that helped bring about this collection of guest posts.

At a very basic level, wheelchair users are not an under-represented group in fiction. We’re just very misunderstood.

Take a moment and I’m sure you’ll easily come up with a dozen characters with wheelchairs: heroes and villains, lead protagonists and supporting characters. They might be from science-fiction or period drama or comedy. You might not be able to think of a character in fantasy—although they do exist—but I’m certain you can come up with a dozen.

I’m going to make a few predictions about your list. Most of the characters are white men. Over half are extremely intelligent. Most of them have vaguely defined injuries. Most of those with clearly defined injuries lost their legs rather than injuring their spine.

My final prediction is that the creative team will only have done some real research if the story is about the disability itself. Otherwise, the wheelchair is at best, descriptive color and at worst, so misunderstood that it might as well not be part of the story.

I’ve been using a wheelchair for almost 16 years, and while friends claim not to see that as one of my defining characteristics, it is. Wheelchair user goes on the list with Irish, gay, ex-pat, hearing impaired, and writer. We are the sum of our experiences and being a wheelchair user is a very different experience to not being one. I am not defined by my disability, but it is part of my daily life and it affects almost everything I do.

Becoming a wheelchair user later in life—or indeed acquiring any condition or disability that drastically changes our interactions with the world—provides a unique perspective on representation. There is a before and after. There is an acquired desire to connect to something that previously was just a plot point or some descriptive color.

In my case, I went from not really thinking about wheelchairs to seeing them everywhere—not to mention seeing the obstacles to their passage. I lost that inattentional blindness that we have about things that don’t affect us. I found myself wanting to know more about my new state, and even needing to find evidence that I hadn’t completely lost my old life, that I still had possibilities.

I gradually realized that very few of the characters I found meant something to me.

There have been some characters that work or at least come close to being good representations. Jason Street (Friday Night Lights) is one. As far as the writing went, Gail Simone’s Barbara Gordon (Birds of Prey) was another, although the art in those comics was rarely as well researched. The Open Hands Initiative’s Bashir Bari (Silver Scorpion) is a character I hope to see again as he was really well done. Finally, as absurd as his physical prowess is, Joe Swanson (Family Guy) is a breath of comedic fresh air.

Despite those few names, some fundamental issues remain. Unless the character’s sole purpose is to tell a story of emotional struggle and physiotherapy (Jason Street) or the disability makes a climactic scene more dramatic (Jake Sully in Avatar), there is a real disconnect between the reality of a wheelchair user and the fictional world.

Many of these issues are subtle but irritating. The wheelchair might not fit the character’s injury and lifestyle. Barbara Gordon has gone through a dozen heavy, thoroughly unsuitable wheelchairs thanks to poor research by artists. The chair might be an absurd contraption. Professor X’s floating metal box in the early 90s and his seated Segway in New X-Men spring to mind. Undefined spinal injuries often lead to inconsistent portrayals of what the character can physically do. Yes, quadriplegics can play sports like wheelchair rugby and go bobsledding, but that doesn’t mean they have full upper body control.

It could be argued that I’m nit-picking but if these characters were supposed to represent people like me, then they failed on some level. The research wasn’t done—or wasn’t complete—and the effect alienated me rather than making me feel understood or included. Some characters fail completely. Professor X, probably the most famous wheelchair-using character, has no traits that show him to have a disability except the wheelchair itself. Even his injury is vague. He’s a better representative for premature alopecia than for spinal cord injury.

The worst insult for me is the sudden cure. The cure negates the character as a representation. Most male comic book characters get cured: they’re cloned into a new body (Professor X); they have costumes that grow new legs for them (Flash Thompson in Venom; Soldier Zero); they get prosthetics that are indistinguishable in function from the real thing (Flash Thompson in Superior Spider-man); or they turn out to have been faking (I won’t spoil that one). Female characters get retconned out of existence (Wendy Harris from Batgirl) or retconned back to health (Barbara Gordon).

That last one particularly stung. While the art had often let the character down, it merely downgraded her from a great representative character to a good one. Gail Simone did some great work, showing in subtle ways that while Barbara Gordon had built a fulfilling life, she faced and overcame daily challenges. Those ranged from keeping her father from worrying about her to being immobilized—but far from helpless—when she was captured and had her wheelchair taken away. She was great. And then she was gone and we were back to pseudo-representatives like Flash Thompson.

Representation is important. When you’re a kid, it’s about having a positive role model with your defining characteristics. When you’re an adult, it’s about being reminded that you fit in somewhere and escaping into that character. And when you’re going through a major life change, it’s about finding solace in stories that show you that someone understands and that maybe you can overcome the challenges you face.

And that’s why representation without understanding hurts as much as not being represented at all.

Derek Handley is an Irish-born writer living in Germany. He divides his time between writing fiction, providing language training, and doing scientific writing and editing for corporate and academic clients. Having traveled extensively since becoming a wheelchair user, he plans to start a resource center for other “rolling travelers” and also develop materials to support able-bodied creators in understanding characters with disabilities.

Jim C. Hines