When a woman rides as a man

Continuing into our World Fantasy inspired posts, this week we have a meditation on a trope that came up in the panel “Beards and Intrigue: Queering the Historical Fantastic” which I took to calling “Queering Beards” at some point. Sorry, everyone I’ve communicated with verbally about this panel. My verbal communication powers are generally negligible.

Anyway, the panelists in question included: Sara Megibow, one of my dream agents and moderator; Greg Tremblay, voice narrator and cool guy; J Tullos Hennig; and Jessica Reisman. All of them write “queer” books, which I put in scarequotes because in this case the term queer is used as a catchall for the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum of genders and sexualities. They hit on a metric boatload of interesting topics, but one thing they brought up that I thought might deserve a blogpost was the trope of a woman masquerading as a man.

Sara did an excellent job moderating, but the framing of the question as she asked it and as it was answered bothered me a bit, which is why I felt the need to write about it more. Speaking of The Bone Doll’s Twin as an example, a story where an infant girl is physically reassigned sex at birth by being magically hidden in the body of a boy, and is later, unwillingly, extricated from that body, she asked if the trope of a woman masquerading as a man could be said to be representative of transgender experiences. The panel members agreed that the trope itself was actually a way for predominantly cisgendered women to escape the bounds of their gender in fiction – but something about that didn’t sit right with me. In The Bone Doll’s Twin, the main character is physically a boy for most of her life. While it doesn’t speak directly to the transgender experience on all levels, and was not written explicitly for a trans readership, I clearly remember the main character’s sexual dysphoria as being a key part of her development at the end of the book, and understandably so. There is a lot going on in this story, and analysis of it from a trans perspective could be a worthy blogpost in and of itself for someone with those lived experiences.

The panel was correct, however, in recognizing that this is not a usual permutation of the trope. Two other examples come to mind, one old and one recent. The first is The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce. This is my personal earliest encounter with the trope of the woman who masquerades as a boy, as the panel pointed out, in order to step past the boundaries of her gender. Alanna is female and a woman. She accepts her womanhood, at the end of the series, once society makes space for her to be both a woman and a warrior. She eventually marries a man, and her sexuality is not, to my remembrance, ever called into question. She is also championed by the Divine Feminine in the form of a goddess. This model is the epitome of the panel’s description, and is mirrored in other contemporary books near and dear to my heart, such as The Blue Sword. This story is not written for a transgender audience, though it may appeal to those questioning the boundaries of gender identity, and certainly functions within feminist critique of what a woman is and can be. To me it is a very different story from that told in The Bone Doll’s Twin.

In contrast, a more recent story that I read which contained this trope is The Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen. I found this to be a very powerful read, personally, in many of the same ways that The Song of the Lioness remains a powerful story for me. However, I felt that Bowen was telling a very different story here as well. Unlike in The Song of the Lioness, Nettie outright rejects her femininity not only in pursuit of ambition, but because she feels a revulsion for her womanness that is clearly articulated. This revulsion is related to her traumas, but not, to my reading, exclusive to it. Nettie’s story is one of self-exploration that explicitly questions her gender representation and sexuality. It uses a pre-identified trope of a woman dressing as a man to pass into forbidden spaces and works to expand that trope by subverting the heteronormativity of it. It is possible that, in another time and place, Nettie might choose transition. Unlike in other stories, even once her biological sex is outed Nettie remains in conflict with her sex and assigned gender.

Therefore, while classic stories such as Song of the Lioness fit within the critique of the panel, as ways to allow women to move in spaces dominated by men and question what women are allowed to be, not every use of this trope is so limited. Both The Bone Doll’s Twin, by explicitly changing the sex of the main character through magic, and The Wake of Vultures, by positing a character who is at minimum genderqueer and questioning of her sexuality, expand the trope of the woman who rides as a man to be something more. I hope that this trope will continue to be adapted and expanded to be more inclusive to other lived experiences.


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Zombies and being human

Happy Halloween (almost)! This post is about zombies, and it’s uncomfortable, but I hope that you will read it and enjoy on this weekend where the veil between life and death is thin. It seems particularly apt to reflect on zombies on this weekend of all weekends. Enjoy!

I was sitting in the memorial garden outside of city hall, enjoying an unseasonably warm day, eating my lunch. I was thinking about how me, in my office clothes, sitting on the concrete stair of the memorial, was probably unusual. Most people get a little finicky about sitting on the ground. The higher up the ladder you go, the more that’s likely.

As I was having this thought I heard someone behind me, across the hedge. They were attempting to sing. It wasn’t going well, and something about it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It sounded like moaning. You know the kind I mean.

the written dead

I ordered this book recently, and I’m very excited to read it. I haven’t started digging into it yet, and I imagine I will do a review or recap once I do. That said, questioning the zombie myth and how it has been appropriated and interpreted by modern media in the US was something that I started doing when I encountered this article from The Atlantic. To recap, what zombies meant in the Caribbean islands where they were first conceptualized was an inability to be released from the horrors of slave labor, even in death. In contrast, the article argues, modern zombie stories are about consumerist culture. In fact, The Walking Dead is called out as being the pinnacle of that metaphor. “The zombie is no longer a commentary on consumerist culture, as it was in the comparatively halcyon days of Dawn of the Dead; it has consumed consumerist culture.” The zombie is a late stage capitalist fetishization.

But this article misses an important point where current zombie stories do parallel the original zombie concept because it does not analyze the zombie stories we tell today based off of class.

Back to me, eating lunch.

The person singing behind me was not a zombie. The person singing behind me was homeless, with likely either an addiction or mental illness or both. She shuffled, and wailed her song, and hung her head, and lurched. And I, already thinking of the differences between people, of how we present, I, uncomfortable with my back turned, thought of zombies.

And then I wondered why I had thought that.

And then I thought about how we as a culture think of homeless people. Of people with mental illnesses. Of people with physical disabilities. And I could very clearly see the parallel with how stories treat zombies – as hurtles, as threats, and as things to be overcome or safely contained and partitioned from our human lives.

Let’s take a step back.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think of people that don’t fit neatly into our society, in any way, as no longer human. The opposite, in fact. Human beings are human – just because you don’t fit, does not make you less valid. The state of marginalization for people with mental and physical disabilities is in fact a commentary on our own society.  There are a lot of reasons that people become homeless. Those with severe mental illness are often victim of our terrible systems for treatment in this country, a lot of which is tied up with our lack of universal healthcare. Those with physical disabilities often slip through what slim social nets we have in place. And some people are just not able to make ends meet, often through no fault of their own, and are ejected from the workforce and from their homes. We should be talking about that.

But have you ever noticed how many of the lead characters in zombie movies are white, and able-bodied, and mostly mentally stable excepting when their mental instability is shown as an acceptable kind? And the extras, the faceless hordes, well – they’re ill, yes, but we’ve got to put them down for our own survival.

Modern zombies may have begun as a critique of mindless consumption, but I think that it’s  worth arguing that the allure of zombie stories as told in this day and age is not always about the madness of consumerism. There is some of that. The root is there. But the reason that many people love zombie movies is because they have the ability to act on zombies with impunity. They are not human. They cannot contribute. Zombies are created by a virus. The illness removes identity and humanity. And then, the protagonist can get out the shotguns and enjoy the blood spatter. The zombie is not someone chained to labor, as in the Caribbean myth. The zombie is someone who has failed to be labor, and thus becomes expendable, a hurdle that must be crossed in the zero-sum game of survival.

I love zombie stories, and I don’t think I’ll stop reading them (though I can’t watch the serious movies, I get nightmares). But I think it’s important to recognize how this story can be used, and it seems to me that it is easily used to rationalize our homicidal urges, to prop up that action hero parallel of the exceptional human being who is faster and stronger and keeps their cool and therefore survives. The best zombie stories question this idea of the exceptional person. They make use look at ourselves. Take Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, for example. The zombie virus in her stories is a really good take on this, with her main characters both embodying and undermining the idea of the exceptional person.

We can ignore the things that make us human, in favor of survival – but one has to question, at the end of the day, who the monster really is.


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Life updates and gratitude

You may remember that we bought a house recently, which was pretty awesome and all, and now I have a house and I must mow the lawn. Mowing the lawn is actually pretty nice because it’s an achievable goal that you finish, for better or worse, within about an hour usually. It’s also a great workout for your back. Pushing a mower is hard, especially when it is grumpy about making turns.

I feel like half my blog posts this year have been about life updates, which is not really surprising because there have been so many of them. This past month was the Equinox, and as a good pagan girl I was supposed to light candles and say thanks and contemplate the things that I’ve been gifted with this year, the labor and the fruits of it, the balance of one to the other. I didn’t really do that – instead I went out for drinks with friends and took a long walk under the stars. I can’t say that I was particularly introspective, but I blew off some steam, which was a good start.

So now here we are, a few weeks late, almost to Samhain, and here I am, thinking about gratitude.

I’ve let a lot of things go fallow this year. Each accomplished thing is counterbalanced by things that are not accomplished, the tradeoff of forward motion. There is a lot I feel that I have not accomplished this year, and it’s easy to get caught up in that and feel it eat away at you. I could count the things that I have lost, but I don’t know that that would be productive for a post that is supposed to be about gratitude. Suffice to say that the desire to be more and do more is a steady pressure in my chest that I’m learning to accommodate and live with instead of try to push away. I’d like to accept it for what it is – a drive and a passion that keeps me alive and innovative and always reaching. I want to be grateful for that pressure, to build on it and turn it into bedrock that I can plant my feet on.

One of the ways to do that is to recognize my accomplishments. This year, I have organized a wedding, and I’ve got to recognize that was a monumental thing that people actually get paid to do as a full-time job. I have seen places and things I’ve never experienced before, been exposed to new ideas. I bought a house, which is not even something I ever really thought I’d be able to do this early in my life, and which took a lot of coordination and concerted pressure on my part. I’ve reached what feels like a new level of ability in my writing, and gained the courage to take rejection without pain (most of the time!) And I get to fulfill one of my dreams by moderating a panel at the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio this year, The Role of the City in Fantasy Settings.

I couldn’t have done any of those things without supportive networks, and I’ve done my best to learn to maintain those networks more thoughtfully and with greater compassion. I’ve tried to learn to forgive people for their foibles, and to forgive myself for mine. That’s been really hard, honestly, and it’s something I’m still working on. And I’ve survived the nonstop bombardment of everything going on in our nation and our world, giving myself permission to take a step away from the things I cannot change and to throw my shoulder in to move the things I can.

It’s been a long and glorious year, and a challenging one, and it’s not done yet. We have two more months of 2017, two writing events coming up, holidays to get through – there’s a lot going on. But I’m ready for it, the good and the bad. I’m ready to keep chipping away at my career, and enjoying this thing we call life.

 

We interrupt your regular programming…

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Verily, cats are weird

My life has been on hold this week following a drastic and explosive vomiting episode on the part of my cat, Fidel, which led to him not eating or drinking for almost two days. I am using this as an excuse to postpone blogging about writerly stuff, since I honestly haven’t had a moment to think straight.

Cats are weird. My poor baby boy, who is really more of a dog than a cat in a lot of ways, is a cuddlemuffin of epic proportions, infinitely curious, and sometimes a jerk. He really, really loves ribbons, and anything stringy looking, and I can see you cat lovers wincing because you know how this story goes right? Cat loves ribbon. Cat finds ribbon in the chaos of the house post-move. Cat eats ribbon.

So Saturday night, as I lay dead to the world, I was awoken by the most terrible hurking. There is no other word for that sound. Hurk. Hurk. I shot up, to realize that my husband was gone and I was the only person in bed. The lights were all on. The hurking continued.

“What is happening?” I said groggily.

“Cat boy threw up,” said the S.O. That was…an understatement.

I didn’t take pictures, and you don’t want them, but what my poor baby threw up was nothing that should have come out of anyone’s throat. It was a hairball the size of Texas, and it had accreted around a ribbon that I recognized instantly as a wide, green ribbon I had been wondering about the past few days. Mystery solved, because this semi-digested, colorless thing was, in fact, the missing ribbon. That hairball smelled terrible, let me tell you, and my stomach is always the least stable around 3 am. I nearly brought up my dinner myself.

Anyway, gory details aside, baby boy was so traumatized that he refused to eat or drink or let anyone touch him. I can only hypothesize that he was in pain from the violent exodus of the foreign object that had been taking up most of his stomach. We had been having problems with him vomiting a little earlier in the week, and so we knew he hadn’t been eating as much as he probably should – I’d chalked it up to stress, because of the move and all, but it was now apparent that it had been his body trying to deal with the ribbon situation. Anyway, he also wasn’t grooming, and so I did what any good cat mom does and insisted we take him to the vet. The only one open on a Sunday was the emergency vet, of course, so that was buckets of fun.

Four hours and a few hundred dollars later, I had a dopey, still-not-great cat who still wouldn’t eat or drink and had a giant lump of subcutaneous fluid on his shoulder. We took him back to the vet yesterday, where they gave him antibiotics, more fluids, took more Xrays, and set him up with an appetite stimulant. He ate this morning (yay!) and is back at the vet for one more go with the Xray machine, just to make sure he doesn’t have any issues internally that could cause complications in a few days. After that it’s just feeding him and making sure he drinks.

Poor guy smells like death, and his sister is NOT having it. She keeps hissing and growling at him. Hasn’t taken a swing at him yet, at least. Between the two of them I haven’t slept much.

Anyway, here is a picture of my sweet boy looking way more awake last night, if still a bit peckish and with a terrible shave job. He followed me around the house, meowed some (though still doesn’t sound like himself) and played with his toys even! But no more ribbons for him, let me tell you what.

fidel sick

The inevitability of sexual assault

After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.

anarchy

Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.

I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.

Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.

I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.

Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.

Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.

If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.

Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.

She doesn’t, of course.

Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.

I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.

That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.

I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.

Good news

Hey friends, some updates from the world of writing!

I’ve been working on getting some appearances scheduled for next year – I believe that I will be at Roanoke Author Invasion and MystiCon again in 2018, though I’m still waiting to firm some of that up, and will be looking at other local convention options that would require less investment on my part. MystiCon is super awesome in that they cover your convention expense, but RAI is a paid event and many other book events are paid as well. This inhibits me a bit, but I’m looking to get in front of some new audiences. So be looking for those announcements as they come about.

I also just recently finished a short story prompted by seeing a very beautiful pendant circulating on the internet. I did not buy it, because I have self-control and I need to make my house payment. I did, however, make a new Pinterest board (I know, my Pinterest is getting out of hand) for short story inspiration. This short story was largely motivated by aesthetics and the desire to write the backstory for another short story that I had written a year or so ago. It was one of those stories that pretty much wrote itself, which is always a nice feeling.

Now that I’ve bought a house and stuff, things are settling down a little bit. That’s allowed me to start pulling together some query packets. Very exciting stuff. Being on submission is always a little heart-pounding, but lately I’ve developed a bit of a laissez-faire attitude about it all, which is helping.

Some of my new zen is because I took a chance recently and applied to be on the program of World Fantasy Convention 2017 and guess what? Despite the fact that I almost didn’t do it because of general impostor syndrome and self-deprecation, I got on the program!! This is such a huge deal for me, honestly. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it, and it’s going to take a lot of work from me to do it right. I’m totally ready, though.

Anyway, I will be updating my events page and this website soon with more details!