The words the world gives

I am currently in the process of redrafting a 45 000-ish word novella that is, in a nutshell, my love song to non-binary and/or gender-non-conforming queer people, feminism and heroes with mental illness.

(Or: I’m trying to redraft, but with the collapse of my internet and my desktop PC both, less things have gotten done than I’d like. There’s a saga I could tell about both, but I’ll just leave it with the belief that since things come in threes, my phone will likely be the next thing to die.)

In my effort to procrastinate in the tradition of all good authors trying to avoid actual writing (and worse, assignments), I got to thinking about why I am writing what I writing – and this time, I don’t mean the obvious answer of ‘NON-BINARY QUEER PEOPLE FUCKING EXIST AND MENTAL ILLNESS HAS NEVER STOPPED ANYONE FROM BEING A BIG FUCKING HERO’. Just take those as a given; I do. Hell, most of the people in my Advanced Fiction Writing class do. They know I’m a person with many causes, but as it turns out, being a person of many causes means I never lack for things to write about.

No, I mean why I write with regards to gender.

This year, I have been writing about women, queer women, non-binary people with a touch of femininity, gender non-conforming women, genderless people who aren’t women, bigender people … anybody, actually, who isn’t a man in the sense of possessing a single, solitary masculine gender. Men … well, there are a few antagonists, but they’re pretty thin on the ground, and that suits me just fine, even if it does make for awkward conversations in workshop groups where men ask me about ‘equality’. (That’s okay: it’s a sign that I’m doing something right.) These days, I don’t feel even the least bit of desire to pick up my keyboard and step into a cis man’s head.

This is a very new thing.

You see, when I started writing – twelve years ago, now – I wrote about men.

At first, back when I was a quiet, sheltered soul who had no idea that anything other than heterosexual relationships and binary cisgender identities existed (I laugh and I cry all at the same time, looking back), I wrote about heterosexual cis male heroes. They suffered the things I know (before I knew I could put the names to them) – depression, anxiety, bullying, abuse, assault, oppression. They were awkward and often shy until they started out on their Hero’s Journey to figure out their place in the world. They were also utterly terrible characters best consigned to the void that is a dusty CD at my parents’ house, characters drawn with all the finesse and ability of a teenager who knows nothing of themself and is many years distant from the self-examination and perception required for good characterisation. They were beginnings, however. We all have to start somewhere, and I began with what I knew – began with the reality that speculative fiction, particularly fantasy, was and often still is riddled with men and swords and machismo, and the so-called ‘feminist’ fantasy novels often involved the most fucking annoying female characters. Back then, I thought there was something wrong with me for not liking the books I was supposed to like, so I shrugged my shoulders and turned to the far more interesting male-centric novels.

(These days, I know that those ‘feminist’ books … weren’t. These days, I know the presence of a female character, even a female protagonist, doesn’t necessarily mean a feminist read. These days, I know that I am no less a feminist for finding the books I was supposed to like unbearable – I only regret that it took me so long to realise the wide, gaping bridge between ‘marketed as feminist’ and ‘actually feminist with strong, appealing, empowering female characters that aren’t regurgitating masculine supremacy, gender essentialism and binarycentrism’.)

Like every budding writer, I wrote what I read – wrote what I knew, even if the only thing I knew were all the words that came before me.

A few years later, just before I realised that I was never going to find cishet men appealing despite all my expectations that one day I’d ‘grow up’ and be just like the heterocentric everyone else (trans people still didn’t exist), gay cis men started creeping into my stories. At first they were just stereotypes played for humour. Later, these became somewhat-rounded secondary characters, and, later still, protagonists in stories that were about magic and abuse and depression but not really about being queer.

There’s a novel of mine that I’d like to pretend doesn’t exist due to my terrible, terrible portrayal of LGB queerness. Fortunately, it only exists on that dusty CD where it can offend only me, and I did ‘grow up’ … into a queer that groans at the internalised homophobia (and misogyny) and wants to pretend that story doesn’t exist, but also has enough sympathy to ache for the poor, unknowing young adult who only knew how to write about their sexuality in terms of terrible stereotypes. This is the sickening, unspoken, unseen side of homo/trans/binary-phobia: we are taught to diminish ourselves before we even know we exist. The story doesn’t just hurt me because I added to a literature, a world, a dialogue of erroneous, cruel, demeaning stereotypes and tropes – it hurts me because these things were the only tools I had with which to write about who I am.

It hurts me because I diminished and belittled and caricatured myself, and that’s the hardest thing to forgive.

How could I have known, after all? How can I speak with anything other than the words the world gives to me, the words available in part in fiction? If only logic could so easily assuage such guilt!

(The other shame, the other pain held close to my heart, is all those days where I thought about my characters, and myself by extension, as something Other. This should hurt, I think: I don’t think I’d like the person I’d be if I can bear that without any weight at all.)

For several years, I wrote about queer cis men. It let me give voice to my queerness at a time when I lived in the guise of a cishet woman; it let me experiment with being something I was not – but something that spoke to me more than my own skin, my own life, my own confining, restraining weight of expectations and experience. Eventually, I started making friends online and sharing some of the words I’d written with other people. I still wrote about men. I came out about not being straight, that the people I find attractive are in possession of femininity … and I still wrote about queer cis men and their lives and stories and adventures. I discovered that a whole bunch of people also write fiction about queer cis men, and that I wasn’t alone in this – in fact, a growing audience of people, queer and cishet, find something compelling in stories about queer cis men.

I kept on writing about queer cis men. Female and non-binary characters started creeping in, slowly – supporting characters, people in short stories. I wrestled not with my sexuality (that, in fact, has been the one thing I haven’t struggled with, although finding the words to express it has become less simple) but the feeling that as a FAAB person attracted to femininity, I should be writing about queer women. I tried. The characters that lived large in my head, though, were the queer men, and for all that I sat down at my computer with all the best intentions of writing about awesome queer ladies, the characters in the stories that got finished were men. Men who know what it feels like to be and live queer, men who struggle with mental illness and families and the difficulty that is being out, but men.

This all lead me to start questioning my gender: to look at what it is about me that loves stepping into a man’s skin, donning his clothes, living his life. For that was what I was doing – casting off everything that weighs me down in a binary cisgender existence, and dressing up in the fictional freedom of suspenders, bandannas and the kind of presentation that doesn’t carry with it the difficulties and fears misogyny grants women and the woman-perceived. I had the chance to experiment here – to try out non-binary and transgender, to write about trans men and discover that their bodies, their lives, their experiences, feel so much more right and natural to me than that of queer cis men. It gave me something else to explore, someone else to be, another skin to try on with each and every story I wrote.

In all these stories, I could be someone who wasn’t me.

I thought, for a while, that I was a man.

A thing happened, though. I injured my hands, got a psychologist, got a few diagnoses, got out of an oppressive environment and ended up in a situation where I could be anyone at all.

(As I said here, that’s a profoundly terrifying thing … but I’ve spent the week since that post reading Kierkegaard – for entirely unrelated reasons that nevertheless leave me feeling as though the Universe is making a point – and trying not to break out in laughter during class discussion, because timely. I guess it’s me and the third despair, then … and that’s by far preferable to the alternatives.)

Instead of being a man in my words and stories, I got to try it on in real life. I got to ask people to use masculine pronouns. I got to present as a trans man – sometimes even just as a man, depending on how much I opened my mouth and spoke in my oh-so-femme voice. (I discovered, now that I had the freedom to say what I want with only reasonable consequences, that I’d rather speak and be misgendered than be silent and ‘pass’.) I spent a year as living as a man, and aside from the misgendering, it wasn’t even too difficult, given that I’d gone back to university and lived on my own. I got to try on a new skin with comparatively few consequences, an opportunity most of us don’t get. It came with a high price, yes – chronic pain is a high price to pay for freedom, a price I am still paying – but it was a wondrous opportunity to try out the belief that I needed to wear a new skin, a new gender, a new sex, in order to be my real, true, uninhibited self. For the first time in my whole life, I didn’t have to live the life I wanted in fiction in order to endure the life I lived outside it. I could just live. The worlds could converge.

A funny thing happens when you have the freedom to be yourself – namely the discovery that you’re not quite who you think you are.

I’m not a man.

For me, it was the realisation that the more I could be a man, the more I was okay with – well, not with being a woman. I’m not a woman and the pain of that misgendering is never going to go away. But I was okay with being what I am right here and now, and I found no more rightness in the male binary box than I did in the female binary box. I didn’t want to be a man. I found acting a man (in one notable instance with a group of trans women, the feeling I had to take on stereotypical male roles and presentations) to be as painful as acting a woman. I’m neither of those things. My body isn’t the problem; society’s categorisation of my body is. I don’t have to belong to the ‘male’ category to take advantage of all the suspenders and bandannas and shirts and short hair that look good on me; I don’t have to belong to the ‘female’ category to like fashion dolls and cute swap cards and bright colours. I could explore my femininity as much as my masculinity. I can be a woman who dresses like a man. I can also be a not-woman, a genderless person, who dresses like a man.

I can be anything, anything at all, and I choose to say no to this oppressive identity of gender that isn’t true to who I am.

(For other people, gender isn’t oppressive. That’s awesome. Go do gender however you like and find power in it. For me, it’s an oppression. When I look into the mirror when I take a shower, I don’t see a gendered or even sexed body. It’s just my body, my androgynous body with certain bits of flesh that are also mine but have nothing to do with my sex or my gender. It staggers my mind that anyone can see those things (gender/sex) despite the fact they don’t exist. I understand how it is that people see it – I did my Honours thesis in Anthropology on scapegoating and genocide, which is the violent endgame of people responding to something that isn’t there – but they are, nevertheless, seeing something that doesn’t exist. It is perplexing. It leaves me feeling as though something is broken in the world – which, of course, it is.)

From that moment on, my writing has taken a sudden, unexpected, unintentional left-hand-turn.

I don’t write about men.

As someone that doesn’t ‘pass’ (hate this term) as male, as someone routinely misgendered as the woman I am not, as someone whose bullying and abuse and acculturation are tied in directly to misogyny, as someone who knows what it is to walk in a woman’s shoes with the strangeness that comes from not being a woman, as someone who couldn’t reconcile my experiences of femininity and misogyny with the cultural ideal of what it is to be a man, as someone who is attracted to femininity … I am finding myself interested in women’s stories and narratives. Non-binary stories and narratives as well, for the two intersect and overlap in the instance of being not-men. They’re not the same thing, but the intersectionality exists, and I find women’s stories far more compelling. These days I’m writing about rape culture and misogyny and abuse and depression and anxiety, all things I know from the inside to varying extents; I’m writing about non-binary characters who also know what it is like to walk in a woman’s shoes with the strangeness that comes from not being a woman, who have to reconcile gender and sexuality and experience and misogyny, for whom these identities are complicated, messy, overlapping, confusing things.

I’m writing about who I am, or people who are like me.

I’m not writing about who I want to be. It’s that strange thing that happens when you get to live as the person you are – the sudden collapse of the need to step into a fantastical other’s shoes for self exploration.

(Now, I know people write for other reasons – I know many, many people who write for other reasons. I have, in fact, written a personal essay on why writers write that’ll be published in Platform 15, and you bet I’ll be linking the hell out of this piece when I have the PDF in my hands, but the conclusion is that trying to find a universal reason for why writers write is a reductive exercise at best. This is about me – what else is a blog for but egocentrism at its finest?)

This has happened in a wonderfully organic way (much like the way I now write in present tense instead of past – psychoanalyse that one if you dare!) to the extent of my stories featuring a cast of wonderful, funny, witty, flawed, damaged, rounded, breathing ladies, people, queers and not-men personages, all of them unfolding with much the same energy, ease and vividness I once found in my male characters.

So, in a way, this is my epitaph.

Goodbye, my male characters. I enjoyed knowing you – I enjoyed writing you. You gave me the chance to explore something closer to whom I am at a time where I couldn’t live as myself, and I am grateful for that. These days, however, as a person living in a different skin altogether, I’m finding that your old skins don’t quite fit. I don’t need you. I don’t even want you.

I’m ‘growing up’ in a genuine and natural sense, which is how life should be.

At some point we realise that we don’t have to work with the words the world gives us – and we can grow into our own words, however strange they might be.

Of course, in five years’ time I might turn around and write about a different set of characters again. I might not write at all. That too is a part of growing up.

But – on Friday I got to present my screenplay treatment and, amidst all the awesome things my script supervisor told me about my handling of rising tension and characterisation, I got paid the best compliment a writer could ever ask for when she told me that I have something to say and the ability to say it.

It’s been a convoluted road to this point, and it’s not without anxiety. If it means I now have something closer to my own words, however, I am so fucking glad to have come here the hard way.

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