The recurring theme of Tor Presents: LGBTQ+ Authors on Gender and Identity in SFF (one of the first panels to kick off BookExpo America 2018) was about how every artist’s identity informs their art. In the case of the four authors present, it’s not just a matter of which words wind up on the page: It’s what point in life their personal experiences became more prevalent to their creative process. It’s the kinds of identities they believe are currently lacking in fiction. It’s their preferences about metaphors and other coded ways of communicating queerness. It’s their decision whether to tell a story about a character whose queerness directly impacts the plot, or about characters who just happen to be queer.
But to start, Charlie Jane Anders, Seth Dickinson, S.L. Huang, and V.E. Schwab had to look at the default.
On Prototypes and Universal Experiences
The “default” being the straight, white, cisgender male identity often being the default experience of fictional characters. Moderator Emily Asher-Perrin (Tor.com’s own) opened the discussion with the point that those who write outside of this invisible default see their writing branded as having “a perspective.” So, what’s that like?
“I do find it super irritating that these stories always get classified as queer fiction or ‘message’ fiction,” said Zero Sum Game author Huang. “I write action thrillers—they are escapist, they are fun, they are fast-paced. I’m not really exploring themes of identity and yet I have an incredibly diverse cast because this is something that’s incredibly important to me as a woman of color, as a queer woman. I want to see people like me who get to do the really fun stuff, have these fight scenes and save the world.”
The problem lies with the default—or, as The Monster Baru Cormorant author Dickinson explained, the question of what is a dog? That is, the brain is programmed to accept a certain prototype (four legs, a tail, barks), and anything outside of that prototype (three-legged, no tail, doesn’t bark) is cognitively taxing to accept despite sharing that identity. Queerness, because it doesn’t match the established prototype, becomes a stereotype instead. “As we throw more characters into the pot,” he said, “as the population changes, as more characters are on TV, the prototype will change.”
Schwab threw out one such scenario: “If we don’t have such a dearth of queer characters in stories, then we have the luxury of having them play many, many roles. Maybe someday we can have enough queer characters that some of them can be villains without it being a direct correlation of queerness and villainy.”
So often the “straight white man” default also assumes a shared universal experience that is usually anything but. However, The City in the Middle of the Night author Anders made a case for the term, just through a different lens: “I think there is such a thing as universal experiences, and we’ve all had experiences others can relate to,” she said. “It’s just, you’re starting from a harder place if you’re writing about truer experiences, or if you’re not writing from a male gaze vantage point, because of this idea that it’s not default universal. But I think you can get past that if you write about things like leaving home for the first time, falling in love, falling out of love. It’s just harder, and it requires more fancy footwork.”
To Reveal or Not to Reveal?
Asher-Perrin referenced a 2012 Ohio State University study of “experience-taking,” in which readers “lost themselves” in a fictional character’s experience. The empathy they gained was measured according to three scenarios: reading a version of the story in which the character is revealed as gay early on; a version that reveals he is gay at the end; or a version in which he is identified as straight. Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants who identified with the character before learning his sexual orientation were more positive and accepting toward the character. But, she asked the panel, is it advantageous to wait until the end of the narrative to reveal such a key component of the character?
“I go into every story—maybe it’s wish fulfillment—assuming everyone is queer,” Schwab said. “Until you insist otherwise in the story, I mentally, consciously break that default because I don’t really believe in that binary.”
“I’m very aware that there’s a lot of culture and politics and reader baggage that particularly my queer readers, who I care about very much, are coming into reading and media consumption with,” Huang said. “For example, TV shows that will queerbait characters but never come out and say, ‘Yes they can have this relationship, this is valid.’ I do try to be very conscious in at least some of my writing in stating that people are not of this cishet default. I’m particularly conscious of this with trans characters.”
Dickinson pointed out the writer’s conundrum of “how much do you write defensively or conspiratorially to get around those prejudices?”
“I want to fall in love with characters on the page as a writer and as a reader,” Anders said. “To me, falling in love with them means knowing them and knowing the gestalt of who they are.” Getting to that point has been a learning process within her own body of work: She wishes that she had made it clearer that Patricia, one of the protagonists of her novel All the Birds in the Sky, is bisexual. When it came to writing The City in the Middle of the Night, Anders made sure to give proper emphasis to her protagonist’s unrequited love for her roommate: “I needed to really build it up so you understand her motivations for what she does later in the book.”
Then there’s her recently published short story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” which Anders described as “The Handmaid’s Tale for trans people”: “I very deliberately in that story don’t tell you that the protagonist is trans for the first two or three pages so you can absolutely sympathize with her, whoever you are, and then I drop that on you. […] She’s just a woman who’s been kidnapped, and terrible things have been done to her.”
On the Usefulness of Metaphor
Metaphors have often stood in for queerness in a story. Is there still space or use for these kind of narrative choices?
“I think they’re useful,” Huang said, adding that “they have to come along with real human characters who have this characteristics. Especially as we move forward into the future. Something very frustrating to me is when a book or movie has this really amazing neat gender ideas going on, but it’s only the aliens have that. I have a novelette I wrote about mermaids, which is a science-fiction Little Mermaid retelling, and the mermaids of course have very different gender dynamics.” That said, she didn’t limit those experiences to the mermaids: “I included a genderqueer scientist among the humans, because it was important to me to see these characters also being human.”
“I don’t think that it’s useful at all,” Anders said. “I think that was one of the things that SF used to do because it was too chickenshit to talk about real stuff, and it went hand-in-hand with all those heavy-handed allegories on Star Trek about the Vietnam War. Just come out with what you want to say unless there’s some reason you’re dressing it up. I like to explore various kinds of shifting identities and identity crises in fiction, so I like to have aliens who have weird gender stuff and creatures who are shapeshifty and people who have to become part alien. I love that kind of stuff, but I never want it to be seen as an on-the-nose metaphor of transness. Because if I want to talk about transness, I will talk about transness.”
It’s about specifics, Dickinson said, with a huge part of one’s identity determined by cultural surroundings: “You’re not just you; you bleed into the way you grew up, and the people around you, and your culture’s thoughts about things. […] The metaphor strips away specificity.”
“I love aliens as examinations for other things,” Schwab said, citing Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet for social commentary on family and households in space. “But that’s not the way queer people should be represented on the page. […] I get very frustrated when the metaphor is meant to stand in for reality. There’s room for both on the page.”
Normal vs. Transgressive
Similar to the question that opened the panel is the issue of any queer story being considered automatically “transgressive” because it deals with sexuality—and further, the assumption that a queer narrative must be about sex. Asher-Perrin tied this to a 2015 speech from television creator Shonda Rhimes, upon accepting an award from the Human Rights Campaign: Rather than accept the praise that she was “diversifying” TV, Rhimes countered, “I have a different word: NORMALIZING. I’m normalizing TV.” To that end, the panel was asked if they felt that they were writing just normal experiences, and is it annoying to be told that they’re transgressive?
“Yes,” Schwab said. “For me, that is normal. For me, I just want to do everything I can to normalize it on the page and create enough of it that it stops being revolutionary and surprising. I’m very glad that readers can see themselves, and it saddens me greatly that they’re so surprised to see themselves.”
“I’m really interested in what parts of us are really fundamental and wired into us, and which parts are given by culture,” Dickinson said. “I think everyone here will agree that a lot more is given to us than culture than we usually discuss.” He described queerness as a force that “opens up this space for challenging things that are taken as very fundamental and essential.”
Huang pointed out how we talk about so much that’s not related to sex: pronouns, insecurities, childrearing, navigating life, all of which intersect with one’s identity. “Identity is just about so much more than who you’re with,” she said. “You can be bisexual and only ever have dated people of one gender, but you’re still bisexual.”
She also touched upon the seeming illogic of there being only one one queer character in a story: “I think I have more queer friends than I have straight friends,” she said to knowing laughs and nods. Schwab chimed in: “I’m always kinda amazed when I see a token queer person in a story surrounded by straight people. Because we move in packs for a reason. Historically for safety and comfort and identity, and yes, I have many more queer friends than I do straight friends. The straight friends are jokingly my token straight friends. […] That’s inauthentic writing to isolate them in that way on the page.”
Anders came to the question from a somewhat different viewpoint than the others: “I do think that including queer sexuality is important,” she said, citing her coming-of-age in the queer literary community in the early 2000s. “I think about people like Samuel R. Delany, who was basically, after Dhalgren, the towering figure in SF, and decided he was going to use that platform to write about really really dirty gay sex for basically the rest of his career. I was at a queer SF event with him recently, [where] he was laughing and saying, ‘I am an SF grandmaster and a total sex radical,’ and he wanted to make sure he rubbed that in people’s faces.”
“I think it’s good to be honest about all the complexity of queer life, including all the weird things you have to deal with as a queer person in the world,” Anders continued. “Most of the time my life revolves around ‘Is my makeup OK?’, ‘Do I look presentable?’, ‘Am I gonna get clocked on the street?’ than it does anything involving sex. I like both acknowledging that sexuality is there and not centering it.”
Writing Through Identity Changes
Asher-Perrin joked that the queer narrative of “born this way” was something “we created so straight people wouldn’t bother us” but also acknowledged that some queer people discover their sexuality and/or gender identity as they grow. The authors discussed how they have written through these shifts in identity.
“For me, absolutely,” said Schwab, who came out in adulthood. She added that she “grew up always thinking that the people I wanted to be were men. Every single person who embodied the features and characteristics I wanted was a male hero or male villain; it was aggressively masculine.” For a long time, she said, she “perpetuated that thinking that I was going to write strong men because that’s who I wanted to be. Not because of [their] inherent gender, but because they were given all the best attributes—which, if you gave them to a female character, were seen not as strengths [but] as nitpicks, as annoyances.” Her characters shifted from straight men to queer men to queer women.
A shared sentiment among the panelists and moderator was the difference between aesthetic attraction and sexual attraction. For Asher-Perrin, it was her piece I Don’t Want to F*** Him, I Want to BE Him, unpacking the reactions that she got, starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood, for seeing herself in male characters. For Schwab, it was the dilemma of admiring a female character and then wondering, Do I want to BE her, or do I want to be WITH her? She cited Killing Eve’s genderswapping of “the tropiest trope”—the cat-and-mouse chase between hero and villain—and then completely moving beyond that swap: “If I had had a show like that ten years ago, my books would look different.”
Coming from a male-dominated career doing stuntwork and weapons expertise, Huang found that conceiving an action-hero mercenary and making her a woman of color “felt like really almost brave, that I needed courage to do that.” Which in turn got her thinking: “‘Am I too much?’ I’m a real person!”
“Part of what keeps me excited about writing every day,” Anders said, “is that I’m always trying on stuff through my characters—different ways of being in the world, different kinds of expressing yourself. I think that’s an important part of the writing process for me. I don’t think in the real world I’m ever going to feel like I’ve just settled. It’s always gonna be kinda up in the air for me a little bit. I live vicariously through my characters, but I also kinda get confused vicariously through my characters. I don’t know if the word therapeutic is right, but it’s something I pour myself into.”
Which Fictional Characters Did Each Author Identify With Growing Up?
For Dickinson, it was Sabriel.
As Anders explained in her Tor.com essay, Wonder Woman was always the hero she wanted to be.
Schwab tended more toward villains, joking that every Halloween she would dress up as a character with a mustache—starting with Captain Hook and then, when she began to run out of options, drawing mustaches on samurai and the like. In all seriousness, she clarified, she did not identify with a character she saw on the page until adulthood.
Huang was also drawn to male characters, especially “arrogant men like [the] Doctor Who archetype.” In contrast to Schwab’s answer, she would find herself hyper-identifying with any Asian characters, regardless of whether they shared any characteristics, simply for the representation offered.
What Does the QUILTBAG+ Hold?
Which queer identities would the panelists like to see more of?
“I would love to see more asexual characters in fiction,” Anders said. “It’s not something I’ve done myself, and I would have to do a lot of work to do it, because I’m not asexual; but I know a lot of asexual people, and they would like to see themselves reflected in fiction.” The same goes, she said, for intersex characters.
This was exactly part of Schwab’s thought process in writing Vicious and Vengeful. With a five-year time jump between books, she decided to make Victor’s asexuality, which she knew, explicitly canon. “I hope I did enough,” she said. “I hope I made it clear enough.”
Genderfluid, genderqueer, and nonbinary characters were among the panelists’ answers. Then Dickinson moved the discussion beyond the United States, calling for more stories from non-American authors: “No matter what you try to dream up, the world is going to have specific details you would never dream up.”
“More intersectionality, period,” Huang said—non-American, queer people of color, disabled queer people of color, neuroatypical people who are also queer, “because we have these people in real life.” The more intersections we add, she said, there will be people arguing that the stories are becoming increasingly unrealistic, but “that’s absolutely not true.”
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders is available January 15, 2019
Vicious by V.E. Schwab is available now, with Vengeful publishing September 25
Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang is available October 2
The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson is available October 30