(And other assorted ramblings on narrative, storytelling, and representation!)
Note: Assume that ‘hero’ is a gender-neutral/non-specific word: I use it throughout in this sense. Unfortunately, it still carries the connotation of masculinity, but I don’t have another word for non-binary heroes (who are heroes, not protagonists). Also, this is long even by my standards.
In the last ten days I’ve written 48 000 words, almost a complete novella first draft (one chapter to go). It’s really a story about two characters, one who is a bitter, fragile trans man with the gift of snark and a willingness to stab first and ask questions later; and one who is an anxious non-binary person with sensory processing difficulties and a desperate yearning to believe that hir culture’s treatment of hir doesn’t constitute abuse (in the form of ableism). They team up and kick off a series that’s about the beautiful friendship of two people who’ll save each other time and time again on a quest to save the world.
(I am fascinated by the desperate lengths to which abused people will go to deny abuse is abuse – to protect and validate the attitudes and behaviours of the abuser, especially a parental-type abuser, out of love and the need to belong. Looking back, the thought of how long I spent doing this, how much I still do it, kills me. I love writing about characters who cannot simply walk away from abuse, where the walking away is complicated and tangled and messy, where it is impossible to hate a parental-abuser even though rationality says you should, because we are all children at heart who want to measure up. I endured too much because I wanted my parents to love me. I still endure too much because I want my parents to love me. It’s pathetic, it’s heartbreaking and it makes no fucking sense from the outside. It’s also real and human. It is, in fact, a sacrifice of heroic proportions – the surrender of safety, happiness and sanity in order to enable someone else’s (distorted view of) happiness. This sacrifice is all the more heroic when we consider that it is made by a child or child-figure.)
I love these characters, their chemistry together and the honest rawness of their emotions: they are in desperate need of a psychologist at the bare minimum, but they’ll keep right on saving the other because now they have decided to do what they can to change their crapsack world, nothing is going to stop them. They are the epitome of something I always wanted to write (and have tried to write many times) in that they are big damn queer heroes, on an epic fantasy scale with all the good versus evil that implies, with mental illness. They are big damn heroes despite mental illness. They are big damn heroes because of it.
Because this is a fantasy novel, they can change the world in a significant, tangible way.
I love Hero’s Journey narratives, and I love writing them for the kinds of characters that don’t get Hero’s Journey narratives. (One of my favourite books is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls for just this reason – a middle-aged mother setting out on the road of heroes? Fuck yeah.) The world tells me, simply by my absence in the grand narratives of our time, that people like me don’t get to be heroes, so of course I’m going to go and do something about that – in part because I have a fucking rescuer complex myself, and in part because how is not living the life of a queer trans person with mental illness a heroic feat? Why are we not heroes? How do we not know what it is to be a hero simply through being far more practiced in surviving the challenges of a Hero’s Journey narrative (than the average able-bodied cishet dude with a penis metaphor)? How are we not better able to accomplish the writing of a real hero? Doesn’t that very disconnect say some horrible things about the role of storytelling as a form of oppression when our meaning of the word ‘hero’ encapsulates such a narrow, limited view of personhood? Doesn’t it suggest a deliberate and concentrated effort to deny obvious heroism?
(Me, I change the world one tiny word at a time. I might write thousands of words to reach a single person. That’s a long, hard slog. It’s not a grand narrative. I don’t appreciate the fantasy of happy endings – my reality is not finding a happy ending but coming to some level of acceptance with the ending I have – but I adore the fantasy of heroes making an appreciable difference, even if it is an imperfect or tragic one. Make a note of this; it’ll become relevant later!)
I actually believe it is impossible for storytelling to not be oppressive: almost every storyteller is going to hold a position of privilege in some respect, or at least a position of indifference or ignorance. We’re going to step on toes (I fucking slay a metaphor when I have one) because writers are largely clueless idiots, just like every other kind of person that must grow and develop and learn. It’s human nature to tell stories, but it’s also human nature to be bloody fucking ignorant. The two are going to intersect. Such is life.
There are only two ways around this, as I see it. One, try really hard not to be ignorant. (Apologise when you do and try not to do it again. Rinse and repeat for the rest of your life. Adulthood is hard.) Two, write stories. Write the stories that aren’t being told. Rewrite the stories that are being told in the wrong way. Talk and correct and write. (Swap ‘write’ with the preferred storytelling verb of your choice, like ‘paint’ or ‘sing’ or ‘orate’ or ‘dance’.) This second is deeply fucking unfair. Yes, it is. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say that if I don’t see the story I want/need, I should write it myself … meanwhile the majority consumer audience can pay a few bucks (mostly to an artist who, because of their majority status, is recompensed) and indulge in all the stories about people like them they can ever wish for. If I were perceived as a real person, I would not struggle to find stories about people like me. I am not a real person, however, and the world is not particularly interested in acknowledging my existence. Therefore, I have to write stories, because I see the problem, because I have the literacy and publishing skills, because I can’t not write, because the injustice chokes me … and, well, because I have said rescuer complex.
To tell a story takes time and training, work and sacrifice. It has taken me millions of words and no small amount of debt to develop the skill I have, and I am not done. In my case, it also takes physical and emotional pain to tell a story – each word I type costs me in physical pain. Never mind the fact that good storytelling involves draft upon draft upon draft – my 45 000 word novella, Asylum, took something like 250 000 words to write. So far, the only recompense I get is personal satisfaction and feedback from teachers/classmates/friends: I’ve made money out of my InDesign and MS Word skills, but not a cent from my words. I still have rent to pay, though. Somehow. I don’t regret the choices I’ve made: I write because I am a writer, because I would write if I were the last person on this earth, because I’d rather be broke than not write, because I am just able to make that choice, but it is ignorance of the highest order to assume one who yearns for representation can easily and readily write the stories they need to see in the world.
Creatives, the kind that do it for the love of creation and no expectation of a living wage, the kind that sacrifice their time and efforts to create works imbued with meaning, the kind that must tell narratives about the heroes the world refuses to see – they are heroes.
Why, yes, I mean the corollary of that.
I’m K. A. and I’m a hero.
This shouldn’t be a shameful or strange or arrogant or prideful thing to admit. Sure, I’m non-binary (with weird pronouns!), and I am riddled with anxiety and depression and mental fucked-up-ness, and my hands don’t work, but it’s a measure of our fucked world that when we think of ‘hero’ we don’t think of ‘chronic pain/depression/anxiety-suffering genderless person’. I am a hero because I have done some awesome things. I have taken names, kicked arse and overcome. I have metamorphosed from a person who said two words in a tutorial to a person who can speak to strangers or give a speech to a crowd of two hundred people, and that takes courage, strength and stubbornness. I have inspired others. I have sacrificed. I stand up for what I believe in as much as I can.
No oversized penis metaphor? No chaining myself to a tree in protest? No sporting accomplishments? That’s the world’s restrictive notion of what makes a hero, again, and I’m not playing that game.
I’m not flawlessly a hero, mind. Never that. I don’t stand up for what I believe in as often as I could. Remember that the heroes that matter are not perfect – why else are hobbits as heroes so appealing save that they reflect our own imperfect humanity? What is the Hero’s Journey without failure along the road? Hell, I’ve spent two months actually not publishing my completed novella (seriously, the file is ready) because of said anxiety despite having a long list of reasons why said novella needs to exist as of yesterday. The anxiety demons are fighting my determination to do what I believe in, and they are fucking winning. Sometimes I choose to be safe instead of being real, and I know others who have made that same, perfectly valid choice. Who doesn’t want to be safe, after all? That doesn’t make me less a hero, just like it doesn’t make less a hero of the friends and teachers and mentors I know, with all their struggles and imperfections and failures, who slay demons and slaughter monsters … just not the kinds of monsters society recognises as monstrous.
(Of course, said anxiety demons are backed up by the acculturation of silence and the very real challenges minorities face in speaking. Anxiety demons very seldom exist without something real to feed on; they are not solely irrational. If they were, they wouldn’t take a lifetime of sheer heroism to fight them every time they appear. Seriously, why are mental illness sufferers not heroes of epic narratives? We spend our lives in battle!)
I know many, many heroes. I know people for whom just getting out of bed is heroic beyond belief. I know people for whom the act of sitting in a classroom with other people is a heroic accomplishment fraught with fear, sacrifice and challenge. The biggest hero I have ever met is a teacher who talks before the classroom about her anxiety and life challenges, who admits her jealousy and failings, who dares to be a real, vulnerable person
I want to be as brave as she is. I want to be her kind of hero.
The reality is, of course, that to be a hero means sacrifice, pain, vulnerability, risk. It means a dream – a world without the Dark One, getting up out of bed, seeing one’s words out on the internet – and it means the eternal threat of being cut down by the demons without and within. To pick up a weapon and take up battle is the most dangerous act a person can undertake: it means facing up to the certainty that we are going to be hurt. If we are lucky, we are only injured; we heal and keep on fighting. We know, however, that there is a high chance of facing a blow that we may not survive. Who doesn’t want to protect themselves from the death blow?
To want to avoid pain, to be safe, is the most human of impulses.
To be a hero is to understand that being real means courting death.
(We like hero narratives with happy endings because we want to believe that we can come out the other side – we can face death, the Innermost Cave, and win through. This is also relevant later.)
Believe it or not, this post began as a voicing of my frustrations at the difficulty of submitting this novella to a queer-centric publisher (eight drafts into the future). The reasons why the publishers I know about won’t touch this vary: length, non-gay/lesbian queer protagonists, a non-binary protagonist, non-female protagonists, no romance, a happy ending for the world but a tragic ending for the two characters involved, the lack of sex, a story that is all about capital-T trauma… There aren’t many queer presses that are going to even take a first look, regardless of how awesome this story might become after polishing; most of them want a romance with a happily ever after. Those that don’t specify the HEA specify gay/lesbian protagonists, a traditional length or other things my novella won’t meet. This series, needless to say, will involve a messy, complicated ending that is a reflection on the unfair burdens minorities face just by being themselves … and it’s not a romance.
No joke: this feeling that I don’t belong even in a niche that should encompass me is fairly emblematic of my life (and that of many other people).
I won’t ever knock anyone for wanting a HEA – no minority reader should be denied a fantasy, especially one that is challenging to find in reality and is life-affirming by its very nature – but I find this expectation among a majority of publishers to be restrictive and stifling. Why must queer genre fiction works contain a romance and a HEA/HFN (never mind the preponderance of erotica)? As a single author who is no less fucking queer for my singleness and current lack of sexual partners – in fact for my current lack of interest in dating and sex – how do I take this as anything but a declaration that successful, story-worthy queerness is defined by the possession of romantic and/or sexual partners? Because, seriously: fuck that. That’s not only transphobic and homophobic/heterocentric – many cishets still see queerness as all about the strange and gross or erotically compelling queer sex – but incredibly dismissive of queer asexual/aromantic identities.
I began a series about two queer people who aren’t together for the romance or the sex because I am tired of genre representation being linked to falling in love, romance, sex, erotica, fucking like fucking rabbits. I wanted two queer heroes who are best friends, who are family-by-choice, who will die for each other, who will save each other – and whose queer identities are not defined by a romantic and/or sexual relationship. Unfortunately, I’ve spent an afternoon looking at submission details only to come to the realisation that if I want my story to be marketed to queer people – which I do, as I believe queer readers must be like me, must bypass the majority of ‘mainstream’ works in favour of presses that provide actual-if-limited queer representation – then there are few presses willing to promote that story sans romance.
It’s not just an issue of one person not finding a publisher. It’s a message that genre stories with queer heroes can only end a certain way. It’s a message that queer hero narratives can only contain certain things, hit certain beats, to be valid, accepted and promoted. This narrative tells the world how queer people should exist in stories: the prevalence (or the definition) of queer people as romantic objects in queer genre fiction is as restrictive as the prevalence of queer people as side characters in mainstream genre fiction. It is storytelling as oppressor. It is as dangerous as the flood of other toxic messages I endure about my own presumed lack of genre-hero qualities. It is telling me that I cannot be a hero in a published queer story unless I fall in romantic/sexual love with another person.
It is telling me that my queerness is defined in narrative by who I romance or who I fuck.
It is yet another message that I am not real.
What does that leave me as a reader if I want to find representation? Children’s lit? Literature? No. I want my fantasy of grand hero narratives, strange worlds, magic and mythology. I want speculative fiction. I want a story like The Hobbit: Bilbo isn’t defined by romance or sex. He just goes on a Hero’s Journey of adventure and self-discovery. There’s no reason, none at all, that a queer character can’t star in such a story; there’s no reason that story can’t be all about a specifically queer adult on a journey.
(Now. I know that queer characters are too-often portrayed as sexless – or oversexed – in mainstream fiction. I agree that it is dangerous to portray transgender and/or non-binary characters as people who needs must be alone and isolated from romantic/sexual relationships; in point of fact, I have not the words to describe how sick that makes me. I agree that it is important to portray queer people in the mainstream in all the fullness and variety of queer life, and that includes the fact that queer people fucking have sex. I’m not talking about mainstream fiction, though: I’m talking about queer genre fiction, queer fiction supposedly targeted at queer people, where in fact there is so little representation that doesn’t involve or include depictions of romance and sex as a focus element. There’s a huge difference.)
Oppression by narrative isn’t just about the kinds of people that walk onto the stage as heroes. It’s also about the kinds of stories told about those heroes. The presence of many different kinds of heroes isn’t enough if those heroes can only act out a handful of stories. It doesn’t matter that the kinds of narratives allowed are desperately life-affirming: they are not the only way to tell a story. They are not the only stories experienced by minority characters. I’m not unaware of the history, here – that for a very long time minority characters were portrayed as majority-written tragic figures if they got a positive portrayal at all, that our romances and relationships were not allowed or severely restricted, that portrayals in the mainstream are still often limited if not terrible – but the resistance against that is still telling me, a minority writer, that I should not write a narrative that speaks to my existence, that portrays the difficulty and complexity of my brand of human. It is still forcing me to be something I am not if I wish to be published (to gain an audience, to make any kind of income, to be visible).
As I said, this is a game I won’t be playing.
I have to look at the words in my own profile, the words to the right-hand-side of this fucking post, and ask myself the heavy question: if I see the need, if I see the absence of a publisher of stories like mine (stories that don’t define a queer genre narrative in a dangerously narrow way) in the same way I see an absence of stories about people like me, do I not need to step up to the second option and do something about it? Write the stories that don’t exist? Publish the stories that don’t exist, so that one day, someone else doesn’t have to flounder from submissions page to submissions page, wondering where it is their story might find a home? Do I need to stop dreaming and start doing? It’s unfair. It’s desperately unfair that I can’t easily find a queer press that publishes works that tell stories about people like me. I shouldn’t have to do anything – I shouldn’t have to write this fucking post!
Unfair, but then again, it’s unfair that Frodo had to carry the ring to Mount Doom.
Heroes don’t stop at ‘should’ or ‘fair’. They pick up their weapons and face the threat of death. (I’m not saying they shouldn’t whine or complain, here and there. Heroes are human.) They slip and fail and fall, but they fight with every tool at their disposal to create a dream. I am writing a story about two people who do just that. It seems to me that it’s an easy thing to write about heroes, but I’ve said myself that minorities are heroes by force of everything they fight and endure just to be themselves, that creatives are heroes by dint of sacrifice, effort and vision. Is it really not the nature of a hero that to tell a tale about heroism, I need to step up and do brave, frightening things myself?
My dream is a world where no queer writer has to be told that their story isn’t valid because their heroes go on the wrong kind of narrative journey (and a world with more fucking MI-suffering narrative heroes). A dream, though, is nothing if it remains only words in my head.
I need, I think, to pick up my rusting penis metaphor and start doing what I can to make that happen.