The other me: Death is Only a Theoretical Concept

I think you know, now, that I’ve been writing creatively for the best part of the last fifteen years. I’ve written and completed about eight novels (first drafts, trust me) and who knows how many incomplete novels and stories. The vast majority of this is never going to see the light of day, as is right: it takes millions of words to get really good, and while I still have plenty to learn, I have my current skill level because of the millions of words I’ve left in my wake.

Over that time my style and creative focus have changed such that I look at the person who wrote my earlier stories and don’t quite recognise them.

Some of the more recent stories, though – some of the things I’ve written in the last five years – are not terrible. They need work, yes; I’ve learnt a great deal in PWE. They are also, topically, not what I’d write today, which usually involves trans and non-binary identities alongside a collection of female characters with feminist leanings. They belong to the period of my life where I wrote about men because I was forced to live the life of a girl, a life that chafed me to the bone, and there was a great deal of liberation in being able to pick up the keyboard and step into an imaginary world where I could live, via proxy, the life I wanted. I read them today and shake my head at the absolute lack of women, at the overwhelming majority of cis male characters (writing a cis male majority means writing everyone gay/bi/pan, because I wasn’t interested in writing about straights even then) and the lack of understanding with regards to social issues.

I also read them today and realise something else: they’re still pretty damn funny.

My favourite character in Asylum is Grandmamma, who takes social norms and wields them as a weapon against her oppressors – and does it, if I say so myself, with such hilarious style. It might be because I’m Australian, where snark is pretty much a national past-time, and because in my own experience laughter is a pretty valid survival mechanism, but as much as I love writing stories that look at oppression and the lived experience of queer folk, I also love writing smart-arse, witty, somewhat-absurd characters. I love writing humour that looks at human faults and frailties; I love writing humour that’s funny and cathartic through near-universal experience.  I love writing stories that are really about deep, dark, horrific topics and still writing characters that laugh and joke, as disrespectful as that might seem. Laughter and humour, to me, is the most human of impulses, and if we can laugh, if we still have that, we’re going to be okay – and that’s why it has such a powerful, valid place into any journey into the blackness of the human psyche. There is a reason why Terry Pratchett is so damn well-loved by his readers – and it’s the combination of social analysis, the journey into the Shadow and humour.

This is why I don’t agree that humour is inappropriate in literature about serious/sensitive topics, depending on how it’s handled/approached and who says it. Rape jokes made by people who aren’t survivors aren’t funny. Assault isn’t funny – I can’t tell how how deeply not-funny I find assault, and I’m having flashbacks just writing those words. Except the image of me being pinned to the carpet and waving my arms like a fucking starfish actually is kind of funny in an incredibly black way, a note of the ridiculous in something horrific, and I get to laugh and cry for the poor person who wanted so very desperately to get that man off me and couldn’t find the words – words that didn’t exist – to make him do it. I can, and I do, make cracks about my family and my own anxiety. I can tell the story of the day I was so scared of class workshopping I couldn’t walk down the stairs in my apartment building, and I can make you laugh while I tell it because this is a universal experience. Anxiety just takes it to extremes, and I will face down anxiety, even if only afterwards, and laugh at its madness. When you take away my humour, you take away my survival, my humanity, my strength. It is a crying shame that I learnt how to laugh at myself before others laugh at me, that I can cut down myself with humour and do so with such savageness my family find it hilarious, but the impulse to laugh even at horror is not something that should be ever taken away from victims and survivors.

We just need to learn how to laugh at ourselves with kindness, not cruelty, but that is our journey to take.

Sure, humour is a weapon and is often used against us: oppressed people know that better than anyone. If I had a dollar for all the times my family or people at school told me that their emotional abuse (bullying, but I will call bullying by its true name: abuse) was just a joke and I shouldn’t take things so seriously, I could give all my books away for free. I learnt how to laugh at myself with such cruel brutality because of this abuse – to tell me to not be hurt by abuse is abuse. Because of this, it wasn’t until I started writing and posting my stories online and getting a response from the friends I made, responses that said these people find my works funny, that I knew I could be comedic. I didn’t know I had a sense of humour; I didn’t know that I had a turn for the absurd and any ability for a very Australian kind of situational comedy. I didn’t know I could tell stories to others, in writing or speech, and make them smile or laugh.

I know these things, now, and I know my fiction writing will most often blend seriousness, psychological reflectiveness and a touch of irony or situational humour – in a queer, Aussie fashion, of course. Humour is so socially and individually subjective, after all. There’s a lot of American and even UK humour I just don’t get. I’m well aware that my brand of humour won’t ‘work’ for everybody – in these stories, there’s a particular bent of outspoken Aussie humour that involves calling a spade a spade but also, I hope, highlights the acceptance underneath that crude directness.

The story that caught my attention was the long short story/novelette Death is Only a Theoretical Concept, which resulted in the fusion of a couple of short stories and about 20k extra words to make the novella-length sequel Whatever Great-Aunty Lizzie Says (now a complete first draft). I’ve been redrafting, extending, editing and developing with a mad frenzy. I love this world, these characters and the changes I’ve made to them. I love that I get to write a book that features a Toyota Hilux painted in the colours of the pansexual flag in a town where the locals will defend this character’s right to drive around in such a car.

(I also love that, over the past few years, I’ve learned the difference between a vignette and writing a story with conflict and a character arc. I can see now that the Port Carmila stories, save possibly the original version of Death, are not stories in any sense of the word. I love that, while I’m never going to be a plot-heavy writer – I do character and vaguely-psychological observations about life – it is becoming easier to create a plot almost strong enough to carry my characters. I actually love that I’m finding it hard to start writing a new story without a sense of plot, because that means plot is becoming more important to me on an instinctive level. I wrote, for years and years, about things that happened to my characters, but I’m starting to write about characters that make decisions and take action, not super-extended vignettes, and it is both glorious as a writer and profoundly psychologically significant.)

Having completed Death and written the first draft of Whatever, having written/polished/redrafted about 75 000 words, I’ve seen something else.

I have written two stories that are, at heart, about the scheming involvement of best friends who care about the protagonists. This was already there in the material as it increasingly came about a coterie of people rather than a pairing, but without thinking about it other than it it seemed to fit, it became much more pronounced in Death and a major plot element in Whatever, to the extent that the denouement of both is respectively a reflection on the importance of good friends and the need to have friends that accept one’s anxiety and one’s ability to run over zombies in a ute – and both these things shouldn’t be taken for granted. (Whew, long sentence!) At the end of Whatever the protagonists are alive (or less-damaged, since one is a vampire) and as healthy as they are because of the friends at their back.

I think you know I’m big on gratitude, but even so, I didn’t quite realise that my thoughts on friendship were strong enough to merit a not-intentional 75 000 word fictional treatise on the subject.

(I should have, because friendship is another word for connection, and I write about connection all the time.)

I am here, where I am today, because of the efforts of others. I don’t want to be the kind of person who takes that for granted. I’m certain that I’ll lose something profound and special if I ever do.

Society has weird attitudes on friends and friendship. I’ll confess, here: for a long time I didn’t have real-life friends. I’m really only just starting to develop a social life and connections to a community, which is why I write about it a lot. I’m actually quite good at talking to people, which is a strange thing for an anxiety suffer to admit. People are starting to tell me that I don’t seem anxious – and life is throwing me in to a whole heap of public-speaking directions into which I’m not even always all that anxious, sometimes. I’m an introvert, and when I’m really out of my comfort zone I clam up, but as soon as I’m in a situation where I know the people around me have any kind of subject in common, I don’t have any real problems in chatting to people. My Opa had the gift of the gab, and I’m more like him than I ever knew. Part of the problem is simply that for most of my life I was closeted and afraid to talk about the things that were important to me; part of the problem was that for most of my life nobody ever wanted to listen to the things I wanted to say and both directly and indirectly told me to shut up. It’s pretty hard to engage in one’s natural loquaciousness when one gets told that of course nobody cares about the things that drive you. The fact that I can stand up and say things to an interested audience is amazing, bewildering, incredible. That kind of life, though, and the anxiety that results from it, makes it hard to make connections and friends.

This, in a vast majority of media, makes you a loser, a freak, the hopeless and the pathetic.

(The fact that there are so many good reasons for a mentally-ill queer coming from abusive environments to avoid people forever and always is never, never acknowledged. If you don’t have friends you’re a loser. If you don’t have a social life, you’re a loser. If you’re not into the right things or wearing the right clothes, you’re a loser. It is your fault for not finding friends; it is your fault for not being outgoing enough; it is your fault for not understanding, not following or not giving a fuck about the right fashion trends. It is your fault for not being the kind of person that fits into society well enough to find the challenge of making friends safe and simple.)

The fact that not having friends is a tragedy of society, not the tragedy of the individual, is so very seldom acknowledged. I’m going to admit something, here. My sister has been deemed narcissistic by professionals I’ve talked to. She is All About Her and has been all her life. She is vicious when it comes to preserving her image of success and accomplishment and awesomeness. She is also an incredibly charismatic, well-liked person with a buzzing social life, and I’ve spent most of my life living in her shadow. My family overlooks her failings; she was allowed to belittle and abuse me, and while I have in no way always treated her like I should have, the familial response to her actions was that I should ignore her. It’s only this year, when some of her reactions have stepped out of bounds, that Mum has come to any real grasp of the fact that being around her is awful. This person, who is cruel to me and to Mum (this is the kind of person who never changes the toilet roll and if ever mentioned accuses you of being too lazy to do it) is the shining archetype of a good, friend-having person in fiction. She is healthy and happy and normal. No, she is in fact an insecure, narcissistic person broken by being raised in a fucked-up family, one who is in desperate need of professional help and will probably never see it or pursue it because her brand of crazy is more socially-acceptable than mine.

(Do I sound bitter? I am, a bit.)

She is able to have friends because she lives something far closer to the natural definitions of people society throws at us and because she is safe among other people who live in the same way. She is able to have friends because she is, in the life she lives (I don’t know if that’s genuinely her or not) able to fit in and find like-minded people – and because she is cis, straight, ostensibly neurotypical, able-bodied.

This isn’t going to make sense to anyone who hasn’t been in therapy, but the thing my psychologists did above all, I think, was encourage me to be weird. They looked at an conventional, expressive, artistic, awkward person who was trying to live a normal life and dying from it, and they helped work with me to gain the confidence to be myself. Not what society wants me to be; not what my family wants me to be. Me. They taught me that I can be different; they taught me that I have to be. They taught me that I have known for a very long time who I am and what I’m about, and now I have to give voice to it. They taught me that there’s a grave and profound sanity in the midst of what looks to society as aberration, and for me everything I thought to be sane is in fact downright crazy.

(There’s two kinds of crazy, as I see it. There’s the brain-demons that say ridiculous things – the stray thoughts that tell me I should kill myself. There’s also socially-designated crazy as an opposite to socially-designated sane, which is often not crazy at all. They’re too-often lumped together when in fact they’re very distinct things.)

I want a world where one can can, with no apologies, be who one is and expect and find friendship. I believe in this world because I live it. I am liked and accepted; I have people who think I will one day shine, people who think I’m confident and driven, people who think I’m mature and focused. There is a place for me in my world, in my industry, and it isn’t easy, but it is so much more liberating than trying to live a lie. I want a world where one can own one’s weird and be loved and defended and respected because of it.

The Port Carmila stories are and always have been about how weird (or how well-developed, interesting, diverse) a character can be and still be accepted by their friends, family and community – and the cast here are weird, quirky and unconventional, but they will always be at each other’s back.

So I bring to you, the beginning of the re-vamped (why, yes, I pun) Port Carmila – a series of paranormal, Australian situational-comedy romances about a pansexual journalism student and zombie hunter (who just happens to be allergic to vampire venom, listen to Celine Dion and have a strange addiction to hair gel) and his  gay, anxious, town planner vampire boyfriend (who is devouring the Western surrealist literary canon and has a not-so-strange addiction to bad TV). Plus a coterie of cishet and queer friends who are annoying, meddling and loveable, all trying to figure out life in an undead-ridden coastal town where tourists come to gawk at the vampires, vampires seduce the tourists, zombies roam the back lawn and drink at the local bar, and the emergency services switchboard has its own absurd fashion of handling incoming calls.

I’ll say straight up: these, for all that they’re undergoing rewrites to add more female characters, more diversity and more thoughtful approaches to the themes, are still not going to be the books I write today, which is why the pseud. They’re still, at heart, romance-centric stories  with a male-predominant cast. I can’t help but feel that cis dudes don’t need added representation in comparison to the many people who just aren’t included in the stories we tell, hear and read. I can’t help but feel that queer genre fiction needs to go beyond romance-centric stories. I love these characters, though, and these stories are too good to languish on my harddrive, and I hope there’s something of value in the genre-bending nature of this story. We have straight-assumed characters who don’t spend time angsting about their sexual orientation before smooching another man; we have vampires that are anxious, awkward and obsessed with breathers because they have warm skin; we have vampire-breather relationships that implode because of reasons that aren’t blood or immortality; we have straight boys who are totally fine about helping their closeted-to-himself pansexual mate rediscover his sexuality. And we have a paranormal narrative set in Australia, because don’t get me started on how Australia doesn’t apparently count as a paranormal setting (or a queer genre book setting that isn’t written by Americans because outback Australia is exotic) and how this is a symptom of USA cultural imperialism.

Yes, this makes me a hypocrite, but I am not so well off that I can leave stories to languish on my harddrive without doing something with them that might lead, over time, to the creation of an income – not when I think there are worthwhile things in those stories.

And to kick this journey off, I give you the first true short story (now novelette) I ever wrote: Death is Only a Theoretical Concept.

DioaTC_Cover_v14Vendors: free via Smashwords (all formats, but Smashwords PDF is not recommended; please download mine below), Kobo, Apple (epub)
Epub ISBN: 9781311283115

Purchase: Amazon: US ( $.99) and AU ($1.11) (AZW for Kindle)

Download: PDF

Word count: 26 000 words (plus bonus vignette)

Note: Yet another present-tense book. This is an extremely revised and extended version of the original story, which is still up on my old LiveJournal should anyone care to Google. (I don’t recommend it: this edition has more awesome ladies and far fewer comma faults.) Please don’t expect them to be all that similar beyond plot: the original was written before I knew the characters all that well, and it shows. Also, it is my intention that Death be a free read everywhere, but Amazon won’t allow me to do it.

Credits: Cover typeset in Idolwild by Vector zombie image by OpenClips. Much gratitude (as always) to the old LiveJournal gang for their brilliant levels of encouragement, enthusiasm and commentary.

Blurb: Welcome to Port Carmila, population 15, 725. Half that count isn’t even human, and that’s not including feral zombies, ghouls and ghosts, mostly because they don’t stand still long enough for counting. It’s a melting pot of the living, the immortal, and the dead … where death means you still have to pay the rent, the merfolk are experts in tax evasion, everybody hates the corny Dead Centre of Australia T-shirts sold at the tourist information centre, and the local police encourage you to carry a weapon at all times, regardless of legality. Sometimes the zombies aren’t your much-loved next-door neighbours…

When Steve Nakamura is dared—after a long-standing Port Carmila tradition—to seduce a vampire in return for his birthday present, he thinks it will be easy. Scrub up, find a hot undead girl who won’t care that he’ll start shambling the moment he stops breathing, kiss her, earn enough money for a new car stereo. Simple, if he doesn’t mind losing a little blood in the process. The cute and anxious Abe Browning, however, is surely undead and just as surely not a girl, and, as it turns out, that’s the last thing Steve needs to worry about when it comes to hooking up with vampires…

Genre: Comedic paranormal queer romance between a gay cis vampire and a pansexual DMAB person whose grasp on sex and gender is, well, fluid.

Content warnings: Fantastical racism (lifeism), actual racism, magic with rape overtones, uses of homophobic slurs and recollections of homophobia. The treatment of the undead in this story is absolutely a metaphor for civil rights. Yes, I poke fun at the vampire literary canon. This is the kind of setting where people use slurs, but they’re generally (not always) used in an accepting kind of way in an environment where most don’t take offense.

Links: If you read this and you absolutely want more Port Carmila, I will be posting vignettes and short stories at Port Carmila (here on WordPress). If you ever want to know what it is Johanna and Izzy text Jack and Phil while Steve’s dancing with Abe, I just might reveal that and much more text-message ridiculousness at Texts From Port Carmila (over on Tumblr).

Feel free to wait for the next less-man-focused thing I write, but I hope you enjoy this little venture off the highway.

(I feel compelled to mention that I found quite a few alien-vector-image road signs when looking for road sign stock, but not so many with zombies. I don’t know what to think about that one, save that I’m fairly sure that’s lifeism in action.)

ETA, some hours later: It occurs to me that, well, writing about humour and serious topics (namely mental illness) is a strange thing right now. I’ll be honest and say I’ve been avoiding the internet because I cannot fucking deal with all the people going ‘Oh, we need to talk about mental illness now!’ after someone died of a fatal but preventable illness. The fact it takes someone’s death to get this kind of response is just more upsetting than I can truly put to words (speaking as someone with my own suicidal ideation), especially when I think about all the people who have fallen to the same disease without the fanfare. I may have had a rant in the classroom about it. This said, I think it only makes it more important, not less, that we hold on to the ability to laugh. Part of the reason I worked on this book was so I could laugh instead of thinking about all the things that make me want to cry, and that’s not a bad thing.

I like to tell stories that depict the bloody reality of what it is to be the characters I write about.

But it is also a fucking fine thing to make someone else smile, laugh or grin, and I hope I can do that, too.

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