Why A Woman Writing As a Man is Different Than A Man Writing As A Woman

A few weeks ago, Writer’s Digest published an article by James Ziskin titled “Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV”. I let this article simmer in my saved folder in Feedly for awhile. I knew I wanted to read it, but I also knew I would Have Words To Say after I’d read it, and I wanted to be in the right headspace to clearly articulate said Words.

James Ziskin has written a novel which features a young woman as its protagonist. “I write like a girl,” he says. “More precisely, I write as a girl.” I have not read Styx and Stone, so I can’t say one way or another if he succeeded in my eyes.

What I can say pretty definitively is that I have a huge amount of skepticism that he truly succeeded. The thing is that it is inherently harder for a man to successfully and authentically write a woman character than for a woman to write a man. This is a product of living in a socially stratified and hierarchical society. My background and training is as a psychological researcher, and much of my research focus on the exploration of power dynamics. There’s a robust finding in social psychology that social status and interpersonal attention are inversely related; that is, the higher up you are on the totem pole, the less you pay attention to other people. Especially those people lower than you on the totem pole.

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Susan Fiske (1993) looked at this specifically in work contexts: an employee pays a whole lot of attention to their manager, but their manager typically pays little attention to them. We’ve all been there, right? You know how your boss takes their coffee, what it means when they get fidgety. You can predict how that meeting will go simply by the way they walk over to your cubicle. But your manager probably knows little about you—they don’t even know if you drink coffee, period, much less how you take it.

This finding has been extended to look at how the use of social power changes the way people attend to others and whether those using power can take people’s perspective. Guess what? The use of power tends to turn people away from thinking about how those around them feel, or how their actions might affect others (Galinsky et al., 2006).

What does all this have to do with Ziskin’s article? Well, the thing is that power is not only used in the workplace. Power is ubiquitous and nebulous. It’s a chameleon that manifests differently in the various domains in which we live—we experience, submit to and use power in our personal lives, with strangers, in schools, etc. It’s no stretch to map these findings onto society writ large; if we think of social status as markers of privileged identities, then the reasons why I am so skeptical of Ziskin start to get clearer.

I am a Female Assigned At Birth genderqueer person, which means that I was born what the medical establishment considered female and was raised as a girl. I am read by virtually everyone I meet as a woman; I am not physically androgynous though my gender presentation is all over the map. I have an authentic, if atypical, insight into what it is to be a woman in modern American society. I will posit that Ziskin does not.

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A really big part of being a woman is learning to pay lots and lots of attention to the men around you. You learn that very early on—men are more likely than you to have wealth and opportunities and as such are usually the gatekeepers to you yourself getting access to those opportunities. Men are potentially dangerous (if you have not already, please read Schrodinger’s Rapist ). As a woman you have to learn to read men’s moods and be able to predict their actions with a fairly high level of accuracy. It’s not all that different than an underling knowing what kind of coffee their boss likes—in each case, noticing all the little things that can predict the bigger actions is important. Knowing how someone who has power over you is going to use that power is a necessary skill. It can, quite literally, be a matter of survival.

I should say here that I think this framing of social dynamics is an inherent part of the tension between marginalization and privilege. It is, in fact, a mechanism that helps to create and reproduce marginalization and privilege. What I mean to say that I think this dynamic where the marginalized has to know and understand the privileged better than the privileged ever know the marginalized is a common element of oppression. We have a lot of different ways of coding this: code-switching, being stealth, staying in the closet are all examples of marginalized people learning the way the privileged act and mimicking that in order to stay afloat.

But what does this mean for writers? It means that no one writes in a vacuum. It means that all of this happens through socialization and internalization of norms and perceptions that don’t disappear just because you’ve decided to tell a story. It means that no one writes from a place of objectivity; nor should they. It means when Ziskin sits down to write as Ellie Stone he does so having lived as a man in a society that privileges men over women. In essence, he is writing right into his own blind spots. Now, again, I haven’t read his book. But in the article he’s penned, he describes his heroine this way:

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960′s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t. She’s a realist, though, aware that a woman can go only so far in a man’s world, so she accepts a lowly position as a fledgling reporter for a small upstate daily. Her beat includes Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary meetings and high school basketball games. But Ellie’s the smartest person in the room, a quick wit, and one of the fellas when it comes to holding her drink. She’d better be able to hold her drink, or be prepared to defend her honor.

If this is at all indicative of how Ziskin writes Ellie Stone in his novel than I would wager that he is not successful in his endeavor to “write as a girl.” This reads as a what a man thinks a woman thinks like. Over and over in this short block of text he asserts patriarchal dominance. He falls into the trap of going out of his way to assert her as beautiful. He mentions in an off-handed way that she deals with sexual harassment and possible sexual assault but the deep-bred visceral fear these interactions bring up in most of us who live as or are read as women is missing. I am also curious as to what he means by “she plays like a man…[but] she’s all woman.” The only way I can understand this is through gendered binaries of what women do and what women are like imposed by men—which are sometimes accurate due to patriarchal restrictions but often are just plain wrong. In short, Ellie Stone may very well end up a cipher; a set-back-then-when-men-were-men-and-women-were-women version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl .

This isn’t entirely Ziskin’s fault, though I do think it’s an act of eyebrow-raising hubris that he feels so very comfortable writing women that he has proclaimed himself a master at it in a widely-read high-profile blog. The thing is that Ziskin can’t write Ellie Stone authentically because he literally does not know what would make her authentic. He hasn’t lived it. He doesn’t understand male privilege enough to know when to check himself in the writing and when to reassess his own writerly instincts.

I did some thinking after reading Ziskin’s article. I can name, easily, a number of women writers who I think have successfully captured a male voice—Ursula K. Le Guin comes immediately to mind, as does Susannah Clarke. Agatha Christie. J.K. Rowling. Margaret Atwood. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. It is much harder for me to think of the reverse. Phillip Pullman does, for the most part, an excellent job with Sally Lockhart. I recently reread Mieville’s Embassytown, and I’m again impressed by his female lead. And that’s all I could think of on my own. I fielded the question to some of my women friends who are voracious readers, and I got Sally Lockhart again and Lyra from His Dark Materials. So, well done, Philip Pullman! Another suggested the lead in John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos, which I have not read, but which she says can still be read as problematic. A friend also cited Hopeful Monsters which I have not read and she says is pretty obscure. And that’s all we got. Five of us wracking our brains—brains that hold massive libraries—and that’s all we got. My point is not that it can’t be done, but that for a person with privilege to write a person marginalized along that same axis is extremely difficult. Mr. Pullman might as well be a unicorn.

And I don’t mean to vilify Ziskin. I am, I will admit, irked at the arrogance it takes to declare yourself successful at this, but, again, this isn’t really about him. It’s about how we don’t write anything in a vacuum and how every single word we write and choice we make as writers is informed by the lives we have led. A couple of months ago I had this wonderful idea for a book—the kind of idea that makes you feel high when it comes to you, truly inspired. The kind of idea that comes to you so perfectly and fully formed that it feels like you could write the whole damn novel in one go and you search desperately for the closest keyboard. I was about to launch in on it…

…and I stopped. Because the lead character was a black woman living in Baltimore just after the Civil War. And I just…I had to take a deep breath and put the idea on hold because I cannot speak to that character’s experience authentically. I can’t. I have some understanding of some of the issues facing the Black community in an intellectualized and abstracted academic way but I am in no way a part of that world. I am a well-meaning White person, and I had to check myself because the world does not need another well-meaning White person writing about the Black experience like they know anything about it. If I ever do write that book, it will be after a dissertation’s worth of research and even then it might never see the light of day. I have written about racial oppression before, but only in secondary fantasy contexts where the oppression doesn’t reflect the real histories of people whose voices are already silenced. And even then I get pangs of worry that I’ve overstepped my bounds, that I’ve been disrespectful and appropriative in presuming to know how that might feel to live through.

I guess to wrap up I would say this: not only is it inherently difficult to write about a person who is marginalized by privileges you hold, but I don’t think it’s appropriate, either. We have plenty of male writers writing women’s stories; we could use more women writing women’s stories. We have plenty of White people (like me) writing Black people’s stories; we would do better to shut up and hand the mic over to Black people, to step aside and let them tell their stories instead.

I don’t believe Ziskin can write as a girl. I don’t believe he should.

Cited:
Fiske, S. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping, American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Galinsky, A., Magee, J., Insei, M., & Gruenfeld, D. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074.

PROOF Expansion ready for beta readers!

bigger and better than ever

bigger and better than ever

Holy shit, you guys, I finished expanding “Proof” into a novel! I have tentatively retitled it Resistance as adding 45k words does tend to change the scope and focus of the work a little bit. I’m planning on writing up my process and experience working on a deadline, but for now, I’ll just throw out a call for beta readers!

Resistance has many faces, and one of them is Shandolin’s. When she finds her friend brutally murdered, Shandolin knows that her life as an elf living in the City of Mages under the heel of the Qin is going to get a whole lot harder. Though the Qin have her in their sights and put an assassin on her trail, Shandolin decides to fight instead of run–but her only hope of survival is a takeover of the City government.

Shandolin draws everyone she loves into the fray with her: her assassin lover, Rivna, who would prefer a quiet life; her mentor, Moshel, whose history with the Qin leaves him paralyzed and frightened; and her best friend, Kel, who has too many mouths to feed to play a losing game of politics. Apart, they are weak, but together Shandolin and her friends, lovers and fellows may be just strong enough to save their skins and the skins of the other elves in the City.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, RESISTANCE is a completed fantasy novel 52,000 words in length. RESISTANCE is about the big and small ways hunted people fight back, and what it may cost them if they win the fight.

Interested? Let me know!

Expanding PROOF – Week 1

As I mentioned a few days ago, I have switched gears to due an impending and enormously exciting deadline! Since I document everything ever, I figured I’d go ahead and document this process, too.

The gist is in two months I need to take “Proof”, a 6,000 word short story, and expand it into a short novel by adding at least 40,000 words. No small feat, right? Well, luckily, I have a bit of a head start: “Proof”, like the vast majority of my fiction, takes place in Aerdh. And it explores characters in a locale i’ve pretty thoroughly built out worldbuilding-wise. And it dovetails with some characters I’ve written about elsewhere. In short, I have a pretty comprehensive sense of what’s going on in the universe in which the story is set at that particular time in the universe’s history, which makes things a lot easier to work with. Mostly expanding “Proof” means taking the current plot, which is stripped pretty bare, and throwing in a bunch of complications to blow up the scope of the narrative.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m not much of a plotter. The pace and action of my narratives typically develop organically from exercises in worldbuilding first and then character development. This project is really no different–the characters are definitely my starting place.

"where should i start? I know! A nice orderly table about my characters"

“where should i start? I know! A nice orderly table about my characters”

“Proof”, at its heart, is a love story, and I very much want to keep that element when I expand it to a novel. Specifically, “Proof” describes a relationship between two women that already has a history. Obviously, one direction I could take the project in is to pull back and watch them fall in love. But I like that they’re already together, that they already have a rhythm and a history. My inclination now is to keep it like that and to use the longer format to explore why and how they work (and why and how they don’t work) together. There is a certain kind of playfulness that exists when you’re writing about two people who already know each other and already love each other that is a little different than the sort of playfulness that exists when a relationship is new and still forming. I want the book to be about how they stay in love rather than how they fall in love.

So, since this will be a book so deeply rooted in how these two characters play off of each other, I started with mapping out how they react to each other. With a table. Look, I’m an analyst by training and trade, right, I think in tables.

The other thing I’ve been working on is an extremely rough idea of a plot. Now, the reason I’m doing this instead of just letting it blossom on its own like I usually do is a matter of scope–left to my own devices I will turn this into a 200,000 word epic about the nature of love and loss and shit like that. And it would be good. But this needs to be a quick, swift romp with just enough gravitas, and for that I need to keep my focus. Since I’ve got two months to make it happen, I don’t have time for a sprawling first draft.

EYES ON THE PRIZE, SANDERS

EYES ON THE PRIZE, SANDERS

So I’m brainstorming at lightspeed, figuring out which elements of the current story need elaboration and what the scope of this will be. It’s like a planning blitz, and so far it’s been really useful. I am sort of concurrently working out the roughest outline in the whole wide world.

I’ll keep y’all posted on where it goes from here!

a spine as strong as spider’s silk

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aspineasstrongasspiderssilk

This is a poem about myself to myself. As a trans* person, a gender variant person, a genderqueer person, I experience varying degrees of body dysphoria on the regular. I do yoga virtually every night, alone and in the dark of my bedroom, which helps me reconnect with what my body is, the beauty of its limits and its realities. It’s a simple and purely physical experience, this ritual of coaxing my body into shapes. That experience is what I’ve tried to capture in this poem.

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS: Proof

Proof_wordle

Hey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

When a friend turns up dead, Shandolin suspects her lover, an elvish assassin named Rivna, may be the reason why. Shandolin marshals all her skills to prove Rivna is the killer, while Rivna does all she can to convince Shandolin she’s innocent.

PROOF is a completed short story 5,650 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. PROOF is a glimpse into the chaotic political and personal lives of two strong-willed sharp-tongued young women that will leave you wanting more.

Interested? Let me know!

Book Review: CONJURE WIFE

I should have known from the cover model's unnecessarily bared shoulder this would raise my feminist hackles

I should have known from the cover model’s unnecessarily bared shoulder this would raise my feminist hackles

Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife is a strange little book.It is expertly written, and it is also utterly misogynist. Conjure Wife, written in 1943, is generally well-regarded and pointed to as an early and promising example of horror and urban fantasy. Some go so far as to call it a classic. Three films have been made using it as a starting point.

But, were anyone to ask me (and obviously no one did as this book review, like all of my book reviews, is unsolicited and will likely disappear, unread, into the great, all-consuming maw of the internet), it’s got more than a few problems. It has strengths, for sure…but for me personally the flaws outweigh the strengths in the grand scheme of things. We’ll get to my analysis of it in a second. Before we can analyze anything, however, we have to know what we’re working with, yes? So, let’s plunge ahead into HUGELY SPOILER LADEN plot territory.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Conjure Wife goes a little something like this:

There’s a youngish professor of sociology named Norman Saylor currently working at a small liberal arts college somewhere. He doesn’t fit well at this college — he’s the sort of irrepressible and brilliant young scholar that is always causing trouble (like threatening to give lectures about the glories of premarital sex to the Off-Campus Mothers League or having wild parties with his actor friends from New York City) that his students love but his colleagues are less thrilled with. Somehow, in psite of this lack of fit, he is ding well for himself in the academic world. He’s got a nice comfortable life with his wife Tansy, and their little cat, Totem. He’s even up for the chairmanship of his department.

But then, for literally no reason (in fact, Leiber goes out of his way to mention that this specific act is largely out of character for Norman Saylor), good Professor Saylor goes snooping through his wife’s dressing room. In it, he finds strange little things — vials of graveyard dirt, fingernail clippings, mysterious flannel packets* — that he recognizes from his research as the odds and ends used in conjure magic. Perplexed, he confronts her about it and she tearfully confesses that yes, she has been practicing magic right under his nose all these years. He tells her to stop, she agrees, and they set about ridding their house of her protective charms. And then, the shit hits the fan. One thing after another after another goes wrong for Saylor. A deranged student tries to shoot him. An equally deranged student accuses him of coming on to her. Their beloved cat Totem is killed by a mysterious force that may or may not be a stone dragon that is sometimes perched watchfully outside his office window. He not only fails to get the chairmanship of the sociology department, but his career is jeopardized when his colleagues start taking a closer look at his behaviors.

He starts to wonder, in spite of his highly prized rationality, if maybe there was something to Tansy’s charms after all. Of course, he still thinks deep down that there isn’t, and as if she’s some sort of recovering addict, he refuses to tell her everything that’s going down for fear she’ll fall off the wagon. But it becomes clear soon enough that things are going badly, and after a raucous night of drinking and cavorting (of a chaste 1943 variety), Tansy pulls off one last piece of magic — she has him unwittingly transfer all the harmful spells targeted on him to her.

That’s when the going really gets rough. It turns out that the people behind all this are the other faculty wives, women who are jockeying for position amongst each other and using their husbands’ careers as pawn pieces. It’s not entirely clear at this point why Norman Saylor is being targeted so malevolently, but it’s clear that the other wives are behind it. They work together to make the finishing blow against the Saylors, which leads Tansy to run off in the dead of night leaving only an unfinished set of scribbled instructions for her husband. He follows a trail of broken notes and tries to perform a spell to pull her out of danger (though what the danger is, precisely, he doesn’t know), only to complete the spell one single minute too late. The husk of his wife — his wife in body only — is returned to him and tells him the faculty wives have stolen her soul.

From there, the book follows Norman Saylor as he desperately tries to learn as much about magic from the soulless (but still quite communicative) husk of his wife so he can rescue her soul and return it to her body. He finds out that the vast majority of women practice magic in secret, and that because of the secrecy most spells are worked out laboriously, in isolation, through trial-and-error. Saylor tricks an old math professor friend of his (whose wife happens to be one of the three faculty wives terrorizing him for not yet clear reasons) into working out the underlying essential elements of various magic spells that will help him get Tansy’s soul back, and does so by using magic himself to steal the soul of one of the faculty wives. He forces a trade: the faculty wife’s soul can go back to her body if she returns his wife’s soul to his wife’s body. The faculty wife concedes and all looks like it’ll turn out well after all.

But the plot thickens! Just then, the wife of the old math professor comes by the house as Tansy is explaining that the wife of the old math professor, in fact, masterminded this whole soul-switching thing. And that Norman really should shoot the wife of the old math professor because she’s definitely up to no good. But he doesn’t. Instead, he winds up playing bridge with the three evil faculty wives while the terrible spouse of the old math professor goes on about how much fun she’s about to have in Tansy Saylor’s body (specifically how much fun she’ll have with Norman Saylor in Tansy Saylor’s body) and explains that she’s brought them all there for her coup de grace: switching bodies with Tansy Saylor permanently. And then, with Norman’s help, she does it.

But wait! Remember how our Norman Saylor is clever and brilliant? Yes, he outsmarts them all. Turns out the old hag had already switched bodies with Tansy Saylor (seriously, trying to keep up with who was in who’s body and who had who’s soul was a little like watching the shell game) and that he’d realized this when what looked like his wife was trying to get him to shoot the old lady. He saw right through that and engineered the fateful bridge game himself to get his wife’s body and his wife’s soul reunited for real this time. And he did. And he and Tansy (presumably) lived happily ever after.

As you can see from the detailed plot synopsis above, tons of stuff happens. Really, it’s a very quick and satisfying read. But towards the end of it, I found myself plagued by questions. The biggest issue for me was how gender was treated throughout the book. Now, again, I recognize that this was written in 1943, but I don’t think its age excuses the outright sexism strewn throughout the book. It seemed like Leiber was, through much of the book, trying to say something about the restrictiveness of gender roles during that time period. The way he writes women as these shadowed puppeteers of men’s lives, the way they enact power by subtly manipulating men who have societally recognized power, is a clever if often-used example of the trope about how behind every powerful man, there’s a powerful woman. It didn’t even really bother me that most of these powerful women lurking in the shadows were of the Lady MacBeth type. It is, after all, a horror story. What bothered me was that the meager amounts of agency this construction of men and women’s roles give women is demolished when Norman Saylor runs in and saves the day.

Think about it: he’s hyper-masculine in his rationality. It takes him basically the entire book before he’s willing to admit that maybe magic actually works. He routinely derides women for their inherent irrationality — hell, his first big academic break was some tome about how the fairer sex is suspicious and riddled with neuroses — and ties the practice of magic to their intuitiveness and said irrationality. The underlying essentialism of this, not to mention this whole idea of men are rational/women are magical is inherently binarist, really rubbed me (a genderqueer person who’s had a shit ton of misogyny heaped on them throughout their life) the wrong way. That would be enough for me to want to throw the book out the window. Then, though, everything got upended. Turns out Norman Saylor is so damned rational that he rationally finds a way (via that aforementioned old math professor, who incidentally also a totally manfully rational man) to practice magic, and of course this masculinized, rational form of magic is much more powerful than the magic of witches who have been practicing their arts for decades. He’s more or less a prodigy. So, not only do we have a book in which a man swoops in to save the damsel in distress, but we have one in which a man co-opts the only sort of power the women around him have, perfects it, and then uses it to save the damsel. A damsel, it should be noted, he himself earlier dismissed as neurotic for protecting him with said feminine power earlier in the book. So, while this starts as an interesting look at male paranoia and male privilege, it certainly doesn’t end that way.

I also had problems with the villain. Mrs. Carr, the wife of the old math professor, is apparently a revolutionary and brilliant witch. Tansy Saylor says as much when she tells Norman that before Mrs. Carr, women had never used their magic in tandem (really? never, really?). Mrs. Carr orchestrated the first group plot, worked out magic with other women willingly and openly, and basically found a whole new way to get shit done. Now, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it? I think so. Imagine if the book had been about the women and how revolutionary it could have been if they learned how much more complex and far-reaching their spells could be in groups. Imagine, if you will, if the women’s lib movement was actually a mass movement of magic-based table turning helmed by a seemingly benign old lady. That could’ve been a hell of a book done right.

But in this book, Mrs. Carr is not exploring and amplifying the strength of her magic because she finds her lifelong role as a supportive companion to a bumbling math professor confining, or even to just better understand the nature of the magic she uses itself. No, she uses it because she’s obsessed with youth and has the hots for Norman Saylor. It seemed strange to me, when her ultimate motivations were revealed, that that’s all she wanted. A woman with that much potential, that much ambition, and all she wanted was a man who clearly couldn’t stand her and body upgrade? It just read as so reductionistic, and patronizing, that nothing else could motivate her. And that’s when the book really lost me. In the last chapter, during the climactic bridge game, I found myself wondering more about Mrs. Carr and what kind of live she must have lived that she would use such awe-inspiring power (because honestly, soul stealing is heavy duty stuff) just to get a chance to live out the rest of her years pretending to be another woman, to live with a man she know actually despises who she really is. I didn’t care much about whether things worked out for the Saylors, frankly.

In sum, this was a well-constructed book but also an incredibly anti-feminist one. I wanted to cut it some slack because of when it was written, but I can’t — I mean, Virginia Woolf had already strutted her stuff by then; it wasn’t like no one was working in critiques of gender socialization into literary works. Conjure Wife, ultimately, feels like a long-winded bit of benevolent sexism: well-meaning and unintentionally condescending, but condescending nonetheless.

bookreview2stars

*The magic used throughout clearly owes a whole lot to voodoo, but all the practitioners in the book were middle class white women. So really this book needs a much more intersectional critique highlighting the racial elements of the text as well, but I am not qualified to provide said race critique on account that (a) I am white and I’d rather center a woman of color’s voice on this, and (b) I don’t know enough about the racialized contexts of voodoo to make that critique myself.

#ThankAWriter Project: China Mieville

go read this book right now

go read this book right now

I saw the #ThankAWriter project over on Nathan Bransford’s blog. Writing letters like this to my favorite authors has actually been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so I’ve jumped right on the bandwagon. I’ll be double-posting these thank you letters here and on my gomighty blog.

Thank you, China Mieville, for validating my existence.

You don’t know me, and we’ll probably never meet, and you likely won’t even read this, but thank you anyway. I have been a fan of your work for some time, and when I heard you were writing a book referencing Moby Dick I nearly shat myself with excitement. Mieville! Melville! One of my favorite authors riffing on one of my other favorite others!! So, I pre-ordered Railsea and inhaled it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep.

I was expecting to love Railsea, but I wasn’t expecting to connect with it so deeply. I didn’t think aspects of myself I have spent so long grappling with, coming to terms with, would be mirrored so beautifully in this book. I’m genderqueer. I am a parent in a triad. Doc Fremlo’s effortless, almost unremarkable gender variance was a revelation. Fremlo was what I am, but utterly at peace with it in a world where what they were was perfectly acceptable. I can count on one hand the number of genderqueer or agender characters I’ve seen portrayed in books, and none of them have been written with such ease or such simple comfort in their own skins. Fremlo was living the life I want to live. Femlo was deeply resonant and deeply inspiring to me. So, thank you for Doc Fremlo. Thank you a million times.

That would have been enough to shoot Railsea up to the top of my list of most favorite books ever, and then I met the Shroakes, and Caldera and Caldero told me about their family. I have a kid — a wonderful, lively kid that I love more than anything in the world — and my kid has me, and her mom, and her dad. Inside our little family unit everything makes perfect sense, but to the rest of the world we don’t. Which one of us is the nanny? Which of the three of us are her ‘real’ parents? These are the questions we navigate everyday. To read about the configuration of the Shroake family (even after it’s been so irreparably broken) was like meeting Doc Fremlo all over again: an overwhelming sense of validation, and of being understood. So, thank you for the Shroakes, as well.

Again, I know we’ve never met and probably never will. I know I don’t know you. But I am immensely grateful for having brushed against you ever so slightly via your writing. I am glad you exist, and that you took the time to write these characters into your book, and I am glad I stumbled on your book and read it and felt less alone and bizarre for who and what I am.

Thank you.

B Sanders

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS!!: Blue Flowers

blueflowerswordleHey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

Pahvo loved Anu before they ever met. Pahvo is a scryer; he sees the future, the past, lives both in a fractured present. When Pahvo first notices Anu across the street, he sees their entire lives together. Anu sees a stranger.

BLUE FLOWERS is a completed short story 4,950 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. BLUE FLOWERS explores the nature of irrevocable and inescapable love.

Interested? Let me know!

Scattered Thoughts On Engels as a Framework for Worldbuilding

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

One reason I am drawn to speculative fiction — both reading what others have written and creating it myself — is its potential for radical what ifs. By that, I mean that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to wonder about and critique the current world in which we live. It offers an alternative to and an escape from existing paradigms. Really good worldbuilding requires a kind of mind that understands how societies are currently structured, how they may be structured elsewhere, and what those structures may evolve into.

I believe I’ve said before that I write fantasy in large part because I love worldbuilding. I like the sandbox quality of spec fic, and specifically fantasy; the possibility of creating a universe from scratch is very exciting to me. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing can ever truly be objective. I see the world through a particular lens, my choices are informed by my experiences and ideas which resonate with me. We all have what I think of as foundational texts — those narratives that define elements of the world to us and can become a lens through which we makes sense of life around us.

I first read Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (click through for full text) when I was 18 years old. Prior to that, I had been reading tons of Marx, tons of Trotsky and Lenin. And I’d been perturbed that Marxist theory never seemed to dig quite deep enough. All oppression is connected — so how do material conditions get elaborated into class structures? And I found this book, devoured it, and it became a primary lens through which I make sense of the world around me.

Engels’ work explores how ecological conditions (scarcity, surplus, the availability of resources) define the social relationships of a group. If there’s not enough to go around, when there’s no surplus, there’s no private property. And when there’s no private property, there’s no inheritance. But when a surplus happens and an inheritance becomes a thing, people want to make sure what they have gets passed to their kids. Now for the one doing the birthing, it’s pretty easy to keep track of who is and is not your kid. For the other parent — the one who supplied sperm and is not directly involved in the whole birth thing — there appears to them to be a reason to control the womb-haver’s body and to make sure their sexuality is kept in check lest all those scraped together resources get passed to kids who are not, in fact, the sperm-haver’s.

The thing that draws me to this line of thought most is how Engels deconstructs biological essentialism. No, women are not just naturally nurturing so they should stay at home with babies. Maybe we say that, but that’s not what’s going on. Engels would say instead perhaps we’re sequestering them so there’s little opportunity for men to be cuckolded. Maybe that’s what’s going on.

When I’m embarking on building a new world, I work actively to a) avoid essentialism and b) build a culture (literally) from the ground up.

Avoiding Essentialism
Essentialism — or the belief that differences between groups of people are fixed and unchanging — is a way to reify the boundaries of one group against another. Gender differences are often explained through biological essentialism (men and women do different things in society because they are just built different). Given that essentialism is so incredibly pervasive in our cultural understanding of the world, it’s not at all shocking that I see a lot of essentialism leak into speculative fiction.

The thing about essentialism, both in terms of fiction and real world thought, is that it is lazy. The human mind and the human experience are incredibly multi-faceted. We are enormously complex beings who live in nearly unimaginable complexity with each other. Nothing about us just is because it is. In worldbuilding especially, essentialism is a mark of an uncommitted writer. It signals to me that an author just checked out of that part of their world. “It just is, ok? Don’t look too close” is what they seem to say.

In my own worldbuilding, I am very much drawn to the margins. I like to write about those on the outskirts of respectability, of society, those who don’t quite fit. But in order to do that well I have to make the story about that individual’s positionality against a larger cultural framework. It’s not that this person is just an inherently amazing person, it’s that this person is forced to navigate choppy cultural waters with a sometimes incompetent boat. The drama is in the tension between that person and the context (or their boat and the ever-changing ocean). And contexts are dynamic. They are anything but stable. Why do they change? How do they change? Who changes them, and do they change back? These are the kinds of questions that often have unsatisfying answers if you are relying on essentialism to explicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings.

From the Ground Up
The other major thing I pay attention to is the ecological material conditions in which a culture exists. Cultures are fascinating because they are, in essence, both a tool to shape the environment around you in a collective way and a collective reaction to the environment. Whenever I am building something out and I’m not sure why/how it came to be, I take it back down to the material context. What is the food like? Is it scarce? How dense is the population? What are the resources available — stone, wood, minerals? Sorting that stuff out often gives me an insight into why a population may have moved from one part of the world to another, or what kind of relationship they have with the natural world down the line.

In the case of one of my cultural groups, it has been useful to understand how their culture and their understanding of their culture has changed due to a vicious and devastating war. With a literal fraction of their people remaining, having been disenfranchised and quite technically blown back to the stone age, how do they deal with, say, abortion? Is it possible that it could have been not a big thing before and is a Huge Deal now? The conditions are different, and cultures either evolve or they die.

Engels and Magic
I would advocate this materially grounded approach to understanding cultural development to basically any writer. Want to write characters from a different positionality than your own? Engels might be able to help. Want to explore a cultural context you did not grow up in? Do a lot of research and think about what questions Engels might ask you to push you deeper.

But I think his approach is especially fruitful in spec fic. In Aerdh, I have essentially a secondary earth but one in a universe where there is an additional natural force of magic. The fabric of reality is, essentially, just a little bit more malleable in certain places, which can be capitalized on by those with certain capabilities. Plugging Engels into this idea forced me to think through things like following:

  • what would make one culture approve of magic and another disapprove? how much of that approval/disapproval is related to the movement or access to resources?
  • how can magic be commodified (or not) as a resource?
  • how does the expression of magical abilities interact with other biological processes to create vulnerabilities for a population? (for example, if magic increases longevity, there may be a concordant reduction in fertility rates to keep populations from exploding. and if that happens, the comparatively smaller number of magical beings might be at risk for colonization by mundane beings).

Do you draw on a particular discourse or framework when you are elbow-deep in crafting a world? What thinkers do you return to again and again for insight? I’d love to here from you in the comments!

I am B, and I am a they (Not Melissa, and not a she)

Note: I don’t do these personal posts often as I try to keep this blog about my writing, but if you’re interested in my personal life/thoughts on things like gender check out my tumblr.

Some of you know this already, and some of you don’t, but just so we’re all on the same page, I am officially coming out as genderqueer. I am a trans* person. I’m also just plain queer (i.e. not straight) while I’m outing myself. If you end up bored and don’t read past this first paragraph what this means for you is that I prefer to be called B (not Melissa) and that I prefer singular ‘they’ pronouns to female pronouns (so don’t call me she). Also, please don’t call me a mother – Zadie calls me her baba.

For those of you remaining, know that I am about to vomit gender feelings all over the internet. First, I’m going to attempt to describe my current relationship to my body, how it’s gendered, how I experience gender, etc. And then, I’ll go into why I think of myself as a they and not a she.

Me, Myself & I: Gender Weirdness Extravaganza
Do you have any idea how often we are asked to disclose our gender? I have come to dread this. Buying plane tickets sucks. Signing up for websites sucks. Any form of intake sucks. They suck because I have to put down female, which is then taken to mean woman, which is increasingly uncomfortable to me.

Gender has always been complicated for me, but it’s grown much more so in the last few years. The other night while I was walking home from work I was struck by a realization that when I was kid, maybe like eleven or twelve, I used to think a lot about the directions my life could go. Maybe I’d be a courtoom lawyer (like Sam Waterston in Law & Order!!). Maybe I’d be a rabble-rousing politician. Or a scientist. Or a musician. And I remember imagining myself in these possible lives and invariably imagining myself as a man. A man, incidentally enough, who didn’t look all that different than I do these days. It was a simple thing, and it wasn’t the ache and yearning thing you see in a lot of culturally sanctioned trans* narratives. It was just…I knew I was going to grow up a woman, but I ended up with this vision of myself as a man anyway.

Note that I said in that first paragraph that I’m genderqueer, not a trans man. After years and years of grueling work coming to love my body, of living in it and being it, I am as much a woman as I am anything else. But that’s the kicker: womanhood is just part of it.

These days I have this instinct to get flippant when forms as my gender. Gender? Chimerical. In flux. Weird. Fuckery. Paradoxical. That’s what fits me.

The Reason For They
I know for a fact that some of the people who will read this are grammar nuts who are totally fine with gender variance, but not really that fine with the bastardly singular they. There are likely people reading this who could give a rat’s ass about pronouns because they will never respect the facts of my gender identity, but those people can go fuck themselves. This section is addressed to the grammar nuts (I love y’all!)

I like they. I am a they. I like the expansiveness of it; I like its encompassing nature. My gender contains fucking multitudes. It is an ensemble film. It is a moving target. ‘They’ captures that. ‘They’ articulates this dual and tripled and quadrupled sense of gender I have: that I am sometimes a woman and sometimes a man and always both and always neither.

‘They’ plays with and breaks the binary. A singular they, to me and in reference to me, is politicized: a rejection of the contraints of a language that has been influenced by binarism, coercive gender assignments, and cis privilege.

There is, to me, a sense of potential when one uses they to describe a person whose gender is not known. Could be either. Could be neither. I like this protean quality it has; in the morning when I wake I could be either, could be neither. They is an umbrella term for all the possibilities and iterations of me, grammar be damned.

So, call me B, and call me they. Call me Zadie’s Baba. I’m asking nicely once. I’m reminding you that it’s only decent to do this, and also stating for the record that I don’t much care how confusing this is for you or how hard it is for you. I am always willing to answer questions, but I reserve the right to ignore those questions if they bother me.

This is a huge scary thing for me, and I’m telling you all this because it’s important to me.