Reading The Wheel of Time

Siuan Sanche and Finding Transgender Experience in The Wheel of Time

Siuan Sanche wasn’t immediately one of my favorite characters in The Wheel of Time. It took me a while to warm up to her, probably because it took the books so long to really show us who she was. Even in sections from Siuan’s point of view, we really only saw her as the Amyrlin, and it is only after Siuan’s stilling that we begin to get to know the woman who was carrying that title. How deep her strength and determination runs. How her power comes not only from the ability to wield saidar, but from her intelligence, political acumen, and ability to think creatively. How much of herself she is willing to sacrifice in order to protect the world. Indeed, it is only through Siuan’s stilling, and the consequences thereof, that the reader begins to see who she really is.

How ironic, then, that outwardly she appears less herself than she ever has.

There is a moment in Chapter 11 of The Fires of Heaven in which Siuan catches her reflection in a window in Lugard. She notes that her stilling has left her a little prettier than she had been when she was actually a young woman, and how that makes it even harder to relate to her own reflection, already altered by the loss of the ageless Aes Sedai look.

She could not connect that face to her, to Siuan Sanche. Only inside was she still the same; her mind yet held all its knowledge. There, in her head, she was still herself.

I felt that line with every bone in my body. You see, I’m transgender. I know what it feels like to have my appearance, my physical body, not match who I am. And there was a period in my life, after I figured out who I was, but before I started reading differently to people where I experienced exactly what Siuan goes through in this chapter. People looked at me and saw a cute, pretty girl. Only I knew that I was something else.

Before my transition, I experienced my physical dysphoria even when I was at home alone, but I could push it to the back burner of my mind and not spend all my thoughts on it. The moment I had to go outside though, I had to start thinking about how other people would see me. And then when people commented on things I was dysphoric about, like my chest, or my petite-ness, that just reminded me of something I was already disconnected from in my own head. I read as a cute young girl to people, just like Siuan does here, and I can see that same disorientation in Siuan when she is at The Nine Horse Hitch, and earlier when she first encounters the catcalls and comments from men in the streets of Lugard.

Siuan gave a start when she realized that some of the men’s suggestions were aimed at her. They did not make her angry—she really could not apply them to herself in her own mind—only startled. She was still not used to the changes in herself.

Observing her own reflection and judging it attractive doesn’t help Siuan make sense of this situation, and she can’t connect the two realities even as she experiences their consequences. At the end of the section she tries to hide her face from the Whitecloaks, because she’s shaken and not thinking clearly, and so forgets that she doesn’t have to hide her Aes Sedai look. She’s not regarding herself differently because of the experience she’s just had, or hiding from the other men in the street. She’s still thinking of herself as an Aes Sedai; who she really is, saidar or no saidar, hasn’t been lost.

Siuan’s struggle to hold onto herself and her identity as she inhabits this new role and new guise also reminds me of my struggle to get to know myself well enough to come out and begin transition. Yes, Siuan is constantly reminding herself that she isn’t the Amyrlin anymore, but that was only a position, and everything she was when she was the Amyrlin she still is now, even if she has to change how she behaves and interacts with the world. We see this in her stubbornness and strength, and we see this in her continued commitment to the path she started on with Moiraine before she even became Amyrlin. Siuan will continue to guide the Aes Sedai, will continue to fight to bring the future of Rand al’Thor and a victory in Tarmon Gai’don, whether she can channel or not, whatever age she appears to be. Even stilling couldn’t take that from her.

Now, not all trans people experience physical dysphoria, but this analogy still applies to those people; their bodies and appearances are seen so differently by the outside world that they are still experiencing the mismatch when it comes to how they are spoken to and treated, and the spaces that they are allowed to take up. And of course, when you do experience physical dysphoria, the way others see you helps remind you of that disconnect within yourself in heightened ways.

Siuan has just lost a fundamental part of her inner self, her connection to saidar, and it has manifested in many ways, including changing her appearance to the point where she is physically unrecognizable. This journey might be closer to the experiences of gender dysphoria than any analogies I have ever tried to make for myself. Just imagine what it would be like to wake up one day and have a different face than the one you remember. Imagine people suddenly calling you a different name, denying your experience of life, and treating you like you’re twenty years younger than you were yesterday. Imagine knowing that what people saw was incorrect, remembering what it was like to be seen for yourself, and yet being unable to show them the truth, looking in the mirror and seeing a face that could almost be you, but isn’t.

That’s very close to what being trans has felt like for me. True, I never had a recollection of being someone else to guide me, just a vague feeling of wrongness, but I did have that ache, that deep sense of emptiness at the core of myself that Siuan and Leanne discovered when they were stilled and the connection to the True Source was taken from them. Perhaps finding myself, figuring out who I was and starting the processes of transition that lets me live that life, is a bit like finding my own connection to the One Power.

It’s remarkable to have found this connection here, in The Fires of Heaven. Dysphoria is a feeling I’ve really struggled to describe to people, and I’ve never been able to find an analogy or way of explaining that wasn’t more about what dysphoria isn’t than what it is. And then I found this analogy in a very unexpected place. Honestly? I was surprised. I love The Wheel of Time, but the way it handles gender can be alienating for a trans reader. We don’t fit into binaries, and any kind of gender essentialism is basically at odds with our very existence. The structure of the One Power insists that there are only two genders, and that these two genders correlate with specific, easily categorized sexual characteristics. There’s no room for me in this world… or so I thought. Siuan may be a cis woman, but I saw myself in her.

Sylas K Barrett would like to give a shout out to Elliot Page this week, and to say that trans rights are human rights. Suppression of other people’s freedom and identities is Darkfriend business.

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