Humanity: a tale of hats beyond counting

Guess what? I’m going to write some more about hero narratives, representation and the intersectionality I wish to see in narrative! Strap in: this one also involves many words.

Because I am evil, I’m going to link you to TV Tropes: Planet of Hats. (Please note that this is not necessarily a recommendation of TV Tropes, as I have major issues with many things on that site, but this is a good starting point for the concept.) In this post, I’m generally using ‘hat’ to mean ‘queer’ or ‘disability’ or ‘race’ or ‘mental illness’ or ‘trans’ or … anything a person can be on an axis of oppression, as opposed to traits or objects.

Now that I’ve introduced that, I’m going somewhere else entirely.

My novella, as mentioned last time, has become a novel. New characters came alive in my head, I had an idea, I added new chapters, and ended up with a complete novel-length first draft. It’s a hot mess right now – with my writing style, that’s what a first draft should be – but I’ve got pages of notes for redrafting, the ideas are still bubbling away, and it feels like a novel that has the potential to be solid. I can see, in my head, what this messy draft can be, and while there’s a need for so much adding of detail and description, so much cutting of dialogue, so much fine-tuning, the plot and character arc – the structure – are stable enough to support the rest of the novel. The characters end up nowhere close to where they were at the beginning, the motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike are clear and vivid, the conclusion is firm for a first book, I know what I want to say with the story, and I adore the cast. It is really fucking exciting to be working on a character-driven novel that’s got enough plot to hold it up as a narrative and involves two active, decisive characters who keep it ticking along. It’s just as exciting to see how I’ve grown as a writer between this and Asylum.

Just about everything I’ve written, however good or bad it may have been (the reality is that everything I write should be ‘bad’ compared to my latest project), has been written in honest sincerity; it has been a tale I’ve needed to write and/or contains a message I’ve needed to say. As I grow and develop, process and heal, my reasons for writing change. My first completed novel draft in 2012, the year after I started therapy/got out of hell, is a glut of pain, a validation of my suffering. My later stories still deal with pain – well, pain is something I know well – but they’re also now about healing, about acceptance, about being a person with pain who still must engage with the world, about the many ways in which a person can be a person. So it is absolutely true that everything I have written has been painful and compelling, a liberation, a validation, an exploration. My writing isn’t real if it’s not that kind of vulnerable, and quite honestly, the lack is always obvious.

This novel, though, has been such a liberation!

My main character. I’ll call hir ‘Z’ (yes, ze is non-binary). Z is anxious, highly sensitive and emotional; has a bundle of sensory processing difficulties (hir tolerance to a long list of things is fairly narrow); and is a bit socially awkward. Ze spends hir life in an ongoing battle to be less difficult and awkward (because ze is more than empathetic enough to know every social rule ze is breaking). Z steps out on the road of heroes because ze decides that not being ‘normal’ is not going to stop hir from being useful. Sure, Z is fairly shit at anything involving a crowd, and has some epic-level meltdowns, but that’s why ze seeks out a partner, Y, to help hir. (Y, though, has rather decided views on whether or not Z needs to be useful for hir people at all, and his attitudes bring Z around to pursuing something else entirely.) Y, in fact, is a PTSD sufferer, so the story is less about Y helping Z than it is about one friend being there to drag the other out of hell when it’s required, and Z saves Y as often as the reverse. Z is keenly aware, from beginning to end, that ze is utterly fucking crazy by ‘normal’ standards, but Z is going to fucking own hir craziness and do things anyway, and Z doesn’t find hir own acceptance as much as ze makes it.

I’m sure everybody knows by this point that I never, never write about things I know or have experienced – right? Never.

I’ll tell you a story from my own childhood/teenager-hood.

I had a pillow. I’ll dub it the One Pillow, not because it had power to dominate the universe, but because it was the only pillow on which someone like me, a highly sensitive person with sensory processing issues and chronic insomnia, could be comfortable enough on which to fall asleep – and believe me, I needed my sleeping environment to be just so to have any chance of falling asleep. Family holidays/camping trips/hotel rooms were/are a nightmare. (Mirtazapine has improved my quality of life no end, let me say.) So. The One Pillow. Perfectly flat, perfectly firm, perfectly supportive … and, well, after several years, kind of old and dingy. Brown, actually. It was in dire need of replacing – that is a point I won’t argue. When I moved out, it might have been close to twenty years old. I’m pretty sure Mum had a celebratory bonfire when I finally said she could get rid of it. I choose not to think about all the organisms that got burned with it.

My parents bought and used cheap, fluffy pillows, the kind that fluff up around the head as it sinks towards the mattress; they couldn’t imagine that their child might be desperately uncomfortable with a non-firm pillow. Every time Mum said the One Pillow was dead and needed changing, she’d change it for one of those new pillows … which, after thirty seconds, drove me utterly fucking crazy with my lack of accustomed comfort. (My ability to tolerate things that cause me discomfort is very short term. No, I cannot ‘wear in’ a pillow or shoes until they become comfortable. I wish I could, but I can’t.) I’d take back the One Pillow. Mum would give me another pillow. Rinse and repeat. It got to the stage where Mum pulled a series of stealth pillow swaps, all of which resulted in my storming into the lounge room and screaming blue murder at her because she took the fucking One Pillow ( because yes, I knew that imposter on my bed wasn’t the One) on which I could get any amount of sleep.

It never occurred to them to provide a pillow of similar firmness to my old one, even if that meant going to a specialist pillow shop – no, they just kept trying with the same fluffy pillows. My obsession with the One Pillow (read: need to fall asleep in comfort) was a bone of contention for years, because they didn’t understand how I could be uncomfortable on a pillow they found perfectly adequate. They didn’t understand how I could not easily fall sleep, for that matter, or why I needed so many blankets, or why the TV turned up too loud in the lounge kept me awake, or why I couldn’t stand the light from the hallway creeping under my bedroom door, or why I needed my environment just so to sleep at all (if my anxiety didn’t start gnawing at my brain).

The story of the One Pillow is fairly symbolic of all the other things I struggled with: I had a sensory issue that prevented me being comfortable, but my family did not understand because it did not make them uncomfortable, therefore I should just magically not be uncomfortable. They treated me as though I thought, felt and functioned the way they did, and sooner or later I’d magically be like they are.

(I moved out and got myself a firm memory foam pillow, at which point I wept and wondered where this miraculous thing had been all my life. Actually, I did a lot of that once I could start setting up my environment to suit me.)

This kind of story is what I am trying to write with this novel and Z’s character, inspired by several conversations with my psychologist. A hero who is like this, and has to deal with it, and sometimes finds that challenging because being highly sensitive in a world of people who don’t feel as much or process sensory information in the same way comes with a lot of ignorance or lack of understanding. Ze is still a hero, though, because it can be dealt with. It can be managed. It even has advantages, sometimes! It can even be communicated to other people; sometimes we can find the right kind and compassionate people who go ‘Oh, the light off in the hallway bothers me far less than it does you when it’s on, and I want you to be able to sleep, so we’ll turn it off at night’ because they want us to be comfortable in the world, too. I want to write a hero who can’t sleep without the One Pillow, who in fact finds just going to bed on the ground in a cloak a hell of a lot harder than slaying a horde of fucking orcs.

It’s a challenge for Z as much as it’s a challenge for me, but it’s something that can be done … but there are so few stories out there that deal with this as a matter of course for a genre hero. Heroes aren’t highly sensitive: they’re able-bodied, neurotypical and don’t need medications or accommodations to function (because needing help is a sign of weakness). Heroes fall asleep in their cloaks! Heroes never take pain medication! The idea that one has to journey on the road of heroes while knowing that at the end of the day ze will lie on the ground, stare up at the sky, and stay awake while hir thoughts swallow up other thoughts and hir feet ache with cold, and it doesn’t matter how many orcs ze slew that day, ze will never be tired enough to sleep through all the things they sense, unlike hir companions? And wish ze risked ridicule to bring along the One Pillow anyway (because when do you see a hero dragging along the One Pillow)? That’s not heroism, or not conventional heroism, and you all know by now: fuck that. That’s a game I’m never playing.

(I swear, there are no orcs in my novel. No fantasy creatures at all, actually. The Lord of the Rings seems to be my fantasy-example of choice.)

Thing is, though: I’ve been playing that game for thirteen years.

This is the first time I’ve deliberately and purposefully written my sensory processing issues, my sensitivity, into a character and a story. My anxiety? Sure. My depression? I’d been doing that for ten years before I fucking got diagnosed. (An eye-opener, in hindsight.) My chronic pain? Likewise. Not my sensitivity. No, heroes aren’t supposed to be like that. Normal people aren’t supposed to be like that. I believed that I was a weird and fussy freak who couldn’t do life like I should, so I wrote about characters who weren’t like me. I wrote about characters who processed the world normally. I wrote about characters who didn’t feel so continually awkward in their skin and their clothes and their environments. I wrote about characters who were not like me, because I’d been taught to deny the way I am. In fact, I only knew one person until recently who might have been like me, and even she didn’t speak much about how she perceived the world – and I didn’t fucking know to ask her.

This, in one paragraph, is why people need diverse heroes.

For every person who knows it is right and normal to be queer, there’s someone queer raised in a place of ignorance and hell who needs a positive lesbian or pansexual or trans role model to let them know they too are a right way to be human – that their thoughts and feelings about themselves in the world are just another shape of normal. There’s someone who missed the dialogue that exists outside of fiction. There’s someone who doesn’t know they’re normal. There’s someone who might spend thirteen years denying who they are, or an aspect of who they are, in a desperate attempt to be the only kind of real they’ve been allowed to know about. It’s why intersectional narratives and diverse heroes are so important: they validate. They confirm that our realness is just as real. In fact, they do more than that: they confirm us as people of value and worth (and this is why diverse side characters don’t count if the hero is still some able-bodied cishet dude). They tell us we are okay, as we are, and we are so okay, in fact, that we can be a hero.

(Heroes aren’t without flaws. We know this. So why is an able-bodied neurotypical person somehow more able to be a hero? One of my favourite books as a kid was Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin because it fucking is the Hero’s Journey narrative of a boy who is scared of everything finishing the quest and saving the day while the fearless hero types fall and fail with each new danger. It’s one of those books – like, say, Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic books – that I’ve come to appreciate even more as an adult. But this shouldn’t just be a feature of children’s lit: adults should have these kinds of hero narratives, too.)

So, yes, Z’s story has been a chance for me to explore the parts of myself that I spend so much of my time repressing and ignoring and barely tolerating, the parts of myself that I pretend don’t exist. It’s been a chance for me to be myself, to stand up and say with Z’s frankness that yeah, I’m pretty fucking crazy when it comes to many things the majority of people don’t understand, but that’s okay. I’m still a hero.

But. I’ve never come across a character in the books I read that was wholly/enough like me, and no, I shouldn’t have to go and read fucking crip lit to find it. I should be able to read books about characters like me who fight dragons and use magic and scheme their way through crapsack worlds. I should be able to pick up a book, in the same section of the library or bookstore as every other book in that genre, and be exposed to a new kind of character, a new kind of realness, a new experience in how they perceive and interact with the world, a new concept of gender or sexual identity, a new depiction of what it means to be human. Even in niche genres, like queer genre fiction, I should be able to pick up a book about a highly sensitive non-binary queer person with mental illness. Right?

I’m going to tell another Mum story.

I used to write big fat cishet fantasy novels, because they were the same things I read. (Eventually they became big fat queer fantasy novels. Or big fat cis gay fantasy novels, anyway; it’s only in the last few years that my writing has settled into something more diverse … like me.) One day, as many queer folk do, I came out. I don’t actually remember a conversation where I discussed what I wrote after coming out, but at several points afterwards, Mum has told me how sad it is that I only write queer stuff now, and how she hopes that one day I’ll write fantasy novels again – that I shouldn’t just let all that work go. I assume that, somewhere in Mum’s mind, she thinks I’m writing big fucking treatises on QUEERNESS (hey, that’s this blog … no, still not), that my writing as a now-out queer is somehow a separate thing from the epic fantasy narratives I read, adored and wrote. As a queer, I guess, I am all about the politics and the fucking?

(My characters are very confused. They thought they were fighting demons, not marching in a Pride parade.)

Without even reading much of my writing, Mum (who loves me, who means well, but does not understand me) has declared my story and my message a single hat defined by my queerness, and that’s not only inaccurate beyond belief on a personal level, it’s not even a realistic depiction of what it is to be human. It is, in fact, an assumption that strips me of the thing that makes me human: the ability to be a multifaceted individual impacted by many identities and experiences of being in the world. I’m not writing fantasy novels about characters who are queer like me. I’m just writing queerness (whatever that even means). It’s an assumption that makes me human in a very narrow, limited way.

Minorities, far too often, are presented as and seen as people of a single hat.

(But we have a million stories of all the different ways one can be a white, able-bodied, cishet middle-class man!)

This is the super simplified reason why people on the internet use the word ‘intersectionality’ so very often. This is why queer WOC get deservedly pissed off over a lack of representation that speaks to their particular experiences as queer WOC, which is not the same as my experience of queerness. (It’s not even fucking close.) Likewise, this is why I spend so much time frustrated by the lack of representation in fiction that speaks to my experiences as a non-binary queer with mental illness, because I experience queerness in a different way to someone who doesn’t have a mental illness history or a non-binary identity. Hell, sometimes I feel like I’m living on a different fucking planet to queer cis folk and binary trans folk … but stories about queer binary folk, cis and trans, don’t wholly encompass my story. Parts of it, sure. The more parts of my life I want in the telling, though, the harder these stories are to find.

(Hell, I’m not even asking for these stories to be about Australian non-binary queer folk … and I could go on about the utter prevalence of American-set fiction and American grammar/spelling/punctuation conventions to the extent of having purchased a gay fiction novel set in Australia only to be bombarded with a long list of Americanisms in dialogue in a fucking pre-internet/pre-TV setting. To have a story about a queer non-binary character with a disability written in Australian English about an Australian character in Australia? Tell him he’s dreamin’!)

What do I want?

Unfortunately, rather a lot.

I want genre fiction that is about being queer and living in the world as a queer person, but is not solely about being queer … and also has the same character having a disability and living in the world as a PWD, but isn’t solely about disability, and so on. I don’t like the concept of a character who ‘just happens’ to be ‘hat/s of relevancy’ because the ‘living in the world as this hat’ aspect is too-often erased (I find this is usually written by authors who are not themselves said hat), and that immediately destroys the validity for me as a story about the honest portrayal of ‘life with said hat’. The story needs to be a depiction of what it means to live in the world as a person of said combination of hats. More than that, it also needs to be a story about things that have nothing to do with any of a person’s hats, because guess what, we also live in the world, we also do things that aren’t queer/disability/gender/sex/race related, and we’re not an honest depiction as human without our love of gardening or heavy metal music, or the annoying way we never change the toilet roll. Hell, sometimes we find ourselves caught up in plots that have nothing to do with our hats – just that our hats make said plots all the more complicated.

If I write a story that’s about my trials and tribulations as a queer and only as a queer, in the way I think Mum assumed of me, that’s flat and unrealistic. If I write a story about me trying to find a job as a queer, non-binary person with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and sensory processing challenges, as a person trying to be employed in a hard-to-be-employed industry and has the remarkable ability to get lost en-route to every interview, that’s not only intersectional but real, honest and human. It is a story many people can find something of themselves in. (I can take it further and make it a grand hero narrative!) The more hats a character wears, the more readers can find some way to connect with this hero (and, consequently, learn about other hats in the process). They still might only find pieces of their lives in this character’s story, but more people will at least find a piece. So why are we not writing stories about heroes with more universality? Is there any rational reason other than the belief that only certain kinds of people, people with one or two hats at best, are the ‘right’ kind of hero?

Simply, I want a presence in narrative that isn’t defined or restricted by one of the many hats I wear. I want that presence to encompass all that I am.

I’ve spent years and years reading books that aren’t about people like me at all. The lessons I’ve learned about what constitutes a story-worthy person don’t include me. They never have.

Because of that very problem, it’s also taken me years and years to write books that are about people like me. To know that you are a hero worthy of being in a story, you first need to know that you exist. How do you know that if you’re not in the stories?

Every child, teenager and adult deserves a hero that looks and sounds and thinks and feels the way they do, and sure, while no one story can encompass all every person might be, there should be enough stories that encompass enough pieces for that validation across a genre. There should be enough writers conveying what it is to live life in all its complexity, diversity and strangeness. People deserve to be real. People deserve to know they are equally as important and capable and inspiring, regardless of the hats they wear or in which combination they wear them.

Nobody should have to excise parts of who they are from what they know about the world in the stories they tell because they have been told those parts aren’t human – which is why writing this story, Z’s story, has been such a liberation, and why it has been so easy to develop this draft over such a short period of time. I’m finally getting to be something I’ve long denied myself, and it is amazing.

Story is the thing that makes us human.

We can’t be human if parts of us don’t make it into the stories.

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2 thoughts on “Humanity: a tale of hats beyond counting

  1. Your novel sounds awesome. I haven’t read any fantasy stories where the heroes struggle as much with internal conflicts as they do with magic or monsters or battles. It’s a void that needs to be filled, especially since fantasy is a great way of exploring real issues and the human condition.

    I’ve tried to put a bit of my own childhood and mental issues into the novel I’m working on, but I find it really hard. Thanks to age, meds, emotional maturity, a change in life circumstances, and a supportive partner, a lot of my issues have lessened or become easier to handle. I want to write my issues into my characters, but it’s painful to go back to many parts of my life. And I like to smooth things over. Maybe it’s dishonest to have my characters turn out to see real monsters instead of just being crazy, but I’m not sure if I’m emotionally ready to write the ugliest, saddest, harshest experiences or feelings in my life.

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    • Thank you for your kind words. I hope my novel lives up to the discussion I can’t help but have about it.

      fantasy is a great way of exploring real issues and the human condition.

      Absolutely! This is why I find it frustrating that it (at least mainstream fantasy) doesn’t explore these things as much as I wish it could. It’s Jungian psychology in narrative form rather by definition; we know these story structures are compelling for this reason. But then, I despise the notion that speculative fiction is ‘genre’ and is therefore less of a meaningful message about what it is to be human because it’s theoretically more about entertainment. The stories that matter aren’t like that. One of my teachers is writing her PhD thesis on the importance of fairy tales in children’s literature and why they’re still vital for child development today, even if they need to take differing forms (she’s writing modern fairy tales for children) and if that’s not evidence they matter, what is?

      Can I say that you deserve a round of applause for getting yourself to that point? Because I know that’s not easy and takes a lot of work, and it almost never gets the respect it should, so, applause.

      I find it cathartic to make the ugly in my life art with meaning, but I think that’s only one approach. I know that for everybody I interviewed for my ‘Writing the right reasons’ piece there was a different way of writing, a different reason for it, and a different attitude towards incorporating one’s pain in their creativity. Some people didn’t want to touch it at all – I spoke to one man who felt it important to him to focus on what he is now, the light in the world, and isn’t that just as valid? If you’re thinking about it, I can’t see how this is a dishonest approach – and I know plenty of people who’d rather read books about monsters who are monsters without the crazy, because they’ve got enough of the crazy in real life. That doesn’t work for me, and it’s not what shapes my creative direction, but that doesn’t make it less of a valuable art form.

      (I can’t remember if I ended up posting it, but I did write a draft post, or part of a post, about how I claim to be against escapism when in fact my writing is pretty damn escapist, and if I didn’t post it, I should. The more I redraft my novel the more obvious it becomes … and it’s not a bad thing.)

      Thank you for the comment and apologies for the length!

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