The many skins of writing escapism

I’m writing another post about depression, self-hate and the expression of self-hate via the tyranny of list-making. It’s a post that is just about killing me to write; yesterday it took me until 2 AM (so, technically, today) to wind down from the crying jags provoked by a mere nine hundred words. I will finish it. I have to finish it, because there needs must be a dialogue about the lack of love inherent in the concept of the list of things left undone, especially if our (my) nature is such to tick off the last item accomplished without so much as a breath of celebration, but writing this has much the same effect of an emotional backhand to the face. I don’t want to touch it. I’m cringing and tearing up just thinking about adding another sentence or paragraph. My stomach knots, my feet cramp, my head spins. No, my body tells me. No. Not yet. I’ve been doing therapy for too long to miss the significance of this pain or the way it touches me with such physicality, but I think this post will be written in short doses interspersed with words that don’t hurt: I need those spaces to survive a pain for which any possible anesthesia is worse than the agony itself.

There’s a reason therapy is a process that happens over a period of time as opposed to ten sessions in a fortnight. I can’t survive all that pain all at once. Nobody can survive all that pain all at once. No living being is hero enough for that, no matter the lies books and films and video games tell us about heroes. I will survive this hurt, because I am a hero, but with time, patience and time, and I’m allowed to listen when my body and heart tell me that, today, that pain just might break me.

Tomorrow, though? I can’t speak for tomorrow, but a tomorrow will come when I can pick up those words and survive them.

(Warning: long post ahead!)

When I feel like this, I write something else entirely. Over the last few months, it means working on Whatever Great-Aunty Lizzie Says and other accompanying short stories in the Port Carmila universe. The plot of Whatever isn’t exactly a happy one – I don’t know what some of my friends are going to say, in point of fact, because I fracture a long-standing relationship in the name of drama – but there is a lightheartedness to the heaviness irrespective of the happy ending and the fact that the eponymous Great-Aunty Lizzie is the literary embodiment of my family’s anxieties. I can summarise it in one poignant and thought-provoking word Kris Alex (is this the correct rendering of your name?) left in the comments on my last post: escapism.

(Actually, I lie. I take a chisel to fault lines already present that I didn’t have the skill to use back when I first began writing in this world. Then I didn’t notice the faults, so I worked around them; now I chisel away, grinning all the while, because those fault lines are the stuff of plot, and the characters and their relationship will be, I think, all the more compelling for the judicious use of that chisel. A happy ending means nothing if the world did not break on the way towards that ending.)

Blog writing, I think, is a process of tucking myself deeper inside my own skin. That’s not as egocentric a process as it sounds on first glance. Given that my skin is one discouraged, ignored or dismissed by Western society, the possession of a place where I can own my own skin is vital simply as a survival mechanism: my blog, like my house, is one of the few places where I can be authentically myself and have my gender (non-gender) taken seriously as a legitimate way of being in the world. When I write blog posts, I don’t have to correct pronouns. I don’t have to walk through the world in a presumed-female guise. I don’t often get this freedom and respect in the world offline, even from people who understand me and care about me. This little piece of the internet is a space where I am as much myself as I can (anyone can) ever be through the limited medium of words, and even if I had no audience at all, that possession of such a space is, I think, what allows us to endure the return to a world where we are not real.

When I leave the house, my skin is torn from my body. It not only doesn’t protect me, it ceases to exist: this important, vital part of how I know my body to be is forcibly stolen away from me. I must operate without it; I must somehow not burst into tears when people tell me I have no right to travel through the world without my skin. Everything I know I am is meaningless until I come home again. Writing this blog is the process that allows me to stitch my skin over muscle, tendon, blood vessels and bone. It reminds me that, contrary to my experiences in the world outside, my skin is real. It is a way of validating what I experience and feel through talking about my life on the presumption that people like me can relate to my experiences and feelings. I am in dialogue with others, as in this blog is the act of making sense from pain via creativity, but I am also in dialogue with myself.

I am telling myself, over and over, that my identity, my thoughts and fears and hopes and struggles, are real, legitimate, important, relevant.

I am reminding myself that my skin exists.

To curl up in my skin, a skin the world actively denies, is a profound, political statement of selfhood. In getting to know and validate myself through my blog, I am able to do something to smash that illusion that we, minorities in sex and gender (as one case example among many) don’t have shared hopes, dreams, fears, pains, delights. I’ve seen some of the search terms that have led people to this blog. I’ve seen cis people reaching out to find how they go about connecting, in a respectful way, with the genderqueer and non-binary people in their life. How do I refer to my genderqueer child? What pronouns do I use for a genderqueer person? Even though there are blogs and websites that answer those questions far more directly, those questions are leading readers to my words. Why, I’m not sure, but the only thing that matters is that there’s an answer for these seekers to find. It matters, based on those search terms alone, that we talk about what we want, what we need, what we experience, what hurts us, what drives us to despair. Swap ‘we’ with ‘I’ and ‘us’ with ‘me’ and those words are no less true: even if I were the only person in the world (not true) to endure what I have, it is a crime that even one child suffered that needless pain. I will write on the off chance that my words do something to prevent another child from walking my road. I write knowing that people, who mean to do the right thing, have come here and just might take away something that makes a difference to someone’s life. If one child lives a better life because of my need to stand up and declare, with pain and pride, that I exist? If my words can serve that wondrous double purpose and build a world where, one day, a gender-non-conforming child steps out into the street with their skin still attached?

Fiction writing is also about these things. It’s a lie to say it’s not, because I do nothing that isn’t political. (I can’t even write a post on setting out dialogue without prefacing it with a political tangent.) You know my thoughts on heroes and hero narratives. I grew up with no books about people like me. I’m still yet to find a novel-length fantasy about someone whose sexuality, non-binary gender and mental illness experience is comparable to mine. (So I wrote Oscar Stillwater and Leïs Anejyá because fuck that shit: I deserve to be a hero.) The freedom to not be political – usually framed by the words ‘having an agenda’ – is a freedom only afforded to non-minorities, but it’s not a freedom I even want as a writer of fictional characters and worlds.

Fiction writing, though, is also about escapism.

I get to create my own worlds.

As someone forced to live in this world, with all the misery it grants me, that is a profound, liberating, wondrous experience.

In Whatever, which is now a complete, five-times redrafted manuscript only in want of line editing, I get to write the progression – or transition – of a character from a state of not-really-conforming-to-conventional-masculinity-but-living-as-a-guy to a state of fuck-binary-gender-as-a-concept-that-has-any-meaning-because-I-look-fabulous-in-high-heels. (Even if finding high heels that fit isn’t as easy as it should be.) This, though, isn’t what has made the writing of this book something that’s kept me afloat while I’m drowning in a stew of unbalanced brain chemicals, even if I get to offer up another non-binary protagonist. The wonder is the world I’ve created around this character. Steve’s father doesn’t get his child’s approach to nir gender, but he buys nem a skirt because ‘getting’ isn’t actually a requirement when it comes to validating and supporting someone we love. Nir mum, who has no money to speak of, says she’ll find a way to make medical transitioning happen if that’s what ney wants: ney just has to say the word. She wants to know what it is Steve experiences even if she can’t actually arrest people for being transphobic arseholes, because it matters to her that ney doesn’t endure that hell alone. Steve’s friends don’t care what it is ney wears or what gender ney is because this is a world where the divisions between male and female are pretty thin if not nonexistent: it’s not like gender makes any meaningful difference to a zombie, after all. As long as Steve stands at their back as they face the oncoming horde together, it doesn’t matter what pronouns ney prefers while ney does it.

I get to create a world where the main character has a bisexual grandmother who patrols the local retirement home with her trans girlfriend, where as many women take up arms against zombies as the men, where family members and boyfriends try hard to remember pronouns and words and people who don’t are openly dismissed as arseholes worth nobody’s time, where an openly pansexual non-binary genderfucking person can be accepted and safe in a small town (where everybody fights feral zombies). I get to create a world where Steve is understood, loved, cherished, beautiful, important – where the collapse and rebuilding of nir relationship is for reasons unrelated to nir sexuality and gender, or where ney is loathed by the head of the local CFA for the time ney dismembered a beloved zombie dog and burnt down two hay sheds, not nir gender, sexuality or transitional status.

I don’t mean to say Steve doesn’t experience bullshit relating to transphobia, transmisogyny, non-binary erasure, homophobia and biphobia, for ney does, and it’s my choice to not take those things away from writing the experience of nir character. I’ve said before, I think, that I love to contrast the world as it should be against the world as it is. Ney does, though, get to live in a world that, for me, doesn’t exist. Ney has acceptance such that ney can step out of nir front door wearing nir own skin, even if that is still a dangerous prospect. Ney has friends, family and love interests that loom and glower at anyone who says something phobic, ignorant or stupid in their hearing; ney suffers little doubt that these people won’t stand at nir back. At no point in the narrative is Steve alone in the experience of being nemself. To say that is something I seldom experience in the offline world is a hilarious understatement, even though I, like Steve, have a friend circle made up more of cishet folk than queers (in nir case, fellow zombie hunters; in mine, fellow writers).

Yes, this world is a political statement: hey, cishets, this is how you treat the queer and trans people in your lives.

It’s also the closest I may ever come, as a queer person who lives and works in binary cishet environments, to experiencing the kind of cishet family and friends who treat me as I wish to be treated. That is something nobody should have to write, and yet I do. I might never experience this world for myself offline. I might never be accepted and understood. (No, not being threatened with violence isn’t good enough.) I write this liking most of the people in my day-to-day life. I write this with full acceptance of the fact that my family are never going to understand or support me – fuck, they’re never going to see the person I am. Such is life. It’s taught me profound gratitude for the people who do. It’s taught me not to take amazing people for granted. That doesn’t change the truth, however, that most people in my world cannot see the difference between me as a woman and me as a person who despairs at the application of gender on my soul, spirit and body.

This world, created in my words, is an escapist fantasy in ways that have nothing to do with the vampire boyfriend and the zombie hordes.

My response to Kris’s telling question spoke of the glorious fun I have in writing. For all that I am driven to write for some often sad or horrific reasons, it is glorious fun. I get to write all the smart-arse dialogue I can never say in real-life confrontations. I get to step inside another character’s skin and view the world through a slightly-different lens than my own (and discover, to my delight, that I’m more like that alien-feeling lens than I ever thought myself to be). I get to make smart-arse observations about everything from society to the media. I get to take tropes and conventions, twist them, put them back on their sides and build a story or concept around them. I get to collect all the things I’d kill to see in narrative and put them in my stories – everything from Australian landscapes and settings to characters who are queer in ways that isn’t defined by their possession of a romantic partner. I love everything about writing, from the disastrous first draft to teasing a coherent story out of the redrafts to the editing and design. I love the process of creation, and even if I don’t feel anything much in the way of success or achievement once I’ve done that (which is a sad fault in me), I am in love with writing itself. I don’t understand writers who say they don’t enjoy writing. I’m glad I don’t. I can’t imagine my life without writing. I’m not sure I want to.

This, though, isn’t the magic that lets me write hundreds of thousands of words in my drafts and redrafts of Something They Call Glory and Whatever.

The magic, for me, lies in the creation of characters, communities and settings where one’s sexuality, gender, mental illness and disability are accepted and understood.

Escapism, of course.

I used to resist this word. My earlier posts will attest to this. I write fantasy that is dark, gritty and confronting. (Well, there are exceptions to that generalisation: the truth is that my creativity is no more binary than I am, and I will write whatever it is I feel like writing wherever it happens to fit on the literary spectrum.) I write characters who say, do and experience ugly things. I like to explore the lived experiences of being queer or having mental illness – certainly, to do mental illness justice, I need to not pull punches when it comes to writing about self-harm or suicide. If I don’t wish to sanitise my own experiences, if I don’t want to contribute to that awful pall of silence that enables if not causes the deaths of my fellow sufferers from the illnesses we share, I need to write about mental illness as I know it. That means showing the bones, being vulnerable and walking the talk. If I do all this, if I write works grounded in the reality of what it is to be the kinds of people I know, how can I be a writer of escapism?

‘Escapism’ conjures a world of fluff, summer beach reads, works that are lacking in meaning or significance. The fantasy genre, populated by dragons, vampires, elves and magic, is widely held to be escapist. (Anyone who knows anything about how hero narratives and fairy tales work knows this for bullshit. The best way to package a message is to house it in a hero narrative, something so embedded into our shared consciousness there is nobody alive who can remain unmoved. Tell me: what is the difference, in terms of psychological and narrative function, between a bully in a realist narrative and a monster in a fantastic one?) Except that my works are escapist by nature, and I defy anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that my writing lacks some profound, art-worthy statement about the human condition. I am a political writer by definition: how can I possibly not have something important to say?

(I know trans writers who write about characters who are not trans, who find their escapism in writing about gender as they wish to be seen without the complication of being trans. I’ve done that. Most of my early works are about cis dudes living as cis dudes, as that was the only way I knew how to explore my own masculinity. Some of us write stories where homophobia doesn’t exist or misogyny is an absurd, alien experience. Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno books are set in a world inhabited solely by cis women where there is only one sex and no concept of binary gender or gender difference, and, as much as it reminds me I don’t exist, I surely see the appeal in such a concept. I don’t want to rank one form of escapism over another: escapism is what allows us to survive, be it as writers or readers.)

I’ll take it a step further: what works are usually dismissed as ‘escapist’? Works that are not literature: romances, most often, works most often defined and written by and for a female audience. Who defines ‘literature’? Educated white cishet dudes, largely, or educated white cishet women writing, reading and working in a tradition established by educated white cishet dudes. What is being said if someone calls any given work ‘escapist’? That it is a bad thing for a woman, living in a world where she is subject to misogyny and the real possibility of violence because of her gender, living in a world she cannot escape, to pick up a book and read a story where she can experience romance and love without danger? That it is a bad thing for a trans person to pick up a book and read a story where we are loved, valued and understood? How dare we dismiss or belittle a work that validates the existence of minorities, that offers us the hope of a happy ending, that allows us to feel safe and accepted in a way the real world does not, as artistically less?*

(* Yes, there are problems with escapist genre writing: romance’s track record with misogyny and heterocentrism is as bad as fantasy’s track record with racism, misogyny and heterocentrism. Name me a genre that doesn’t have a bad track record with misogyny and heterocentrism, though. Please point out the wide swathes of literary novels free of misogyny and heterocentrism. Fifty Shades is not a reason to regard romance the way we do.)

The concept of escapist writing as something less than literary is privilege in operation.

Or it is, if we ignore the fact that a minority writing escapist fiction is in fact a profound political statement: the world in which we must live sucks, so here, look at how the world can and should be. Oh, you sneer at it and call it escapism? You do understand what you’ve just said, right? Depictions of the world as it is have more literary merit? Awesome. Thanks for the reminder that the very concept of literature is nothing more than privilege in its most distilled form. It’s not like I need to keep telling myself this every time I feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit my fantasticial tendencies to strangers (who, for some reason, presume me a literary or academic writer). It’s not like I spent four years during my BA not telling my fellow anthropology and literature students that I write fantasy. It’s not like I never once read aloud my work in workshops during said BA, afraid of what would be said by a classroom of literature writers to a writer of genre. It’s not like I still feel the need to apologise to teachers for writing about zombies and vampires. It’s not like I’ve had to deal with teachers who can’t handle my odd position of combining realist literary and fantasy/spec fic style and content. It’s not like I’ve spent a good couple of years trying to come to terms with the idea that I do, in fact, write for escapism. Why wouldn’t I seek to deny this tendency in myself given everything associated with that word?

I love to write because it validates my existence.

I love to write because I can escape my existence.

There is everything profound in creating and stepping into a better world, even if that world can only exist in our words. I wish I could tell the writer I was ten or five years ago that I don’t have to be ashamed of writing the words that move me. I wish I could tell the writer that started this blog that there is a delight and glory in writing stories that allow people to step away from reality, that the words which allow us to survive can’t possibly lack meaning, that any belief to the contrary is the damaging execution of privilege from people who will never understand the need to escape a world that hurts us.

I can’t tell my past self those words, but I can tell you.

I do, in fact, write for escapism.

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