Invisible 2

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.

#

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

Jim C. Hines