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.

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A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

Your infrequent inspiration update 

It’s November and the holidays are rolling down the chute, coming whether we like it or not. I haven’t planned my entire Thanksgiving dinner yet but you’ll probably hear all about it after the fact. For now, I wanted to bring you up to speed on some of the fun things I’ve read  and watched recently.

First off, Luke Cage. Holy mess Luke Cage. There were so many things done right with this show. The research and care that went into this production blew me away. The attention to detail in the selection of the soundtrack was especially phenomenal. At first, I was a little skeptical that Luke’s vendetta with Cottonmouth was feeding into the narrative of black on black crime, but the treatment of both characters as well as the role of Misty and Scarfe and the exploration of their motivations and identities quickly quelled that fear. All of the characters in Luke Cage are wonderfully complex and well-crafted. I definitely recommend it.  I could write a book about this show, but I’ll let you watch it and see for yourself.


As for other things  I’ve been into, there have been a lot of short stories I’ve really enjoyed recently. “Fiber,” a comedy with reborn zombies and cheerleaders by Seanan McGuire, was particularly amusing. You can find that over at Tor.com. On the eery, cerebral side of the spectrum there was “What Becomes of the Third Hearted,” published by Shimmer Magazine. That one was like a punch to the gut, in a good way. I’ve also been enjoying being a Patron of Fireside Fiction and Martha Wells. Martha Wells in particular gives me a bunch of fun Raksura tidbits to chew on, which I love. I’m very excited for Harbors of the Sun to hit shelves next summer.

Speaking of novels and novellas, some recent reads have included Vermilion, which I have been wanting to read forever, and Silver on the Road. I guess I’ve been on a Western kick. Vermilion is set in San Francisco and other areas on the far west coast, during the 1800s unless I miss my guess. It is a steampunk adventure which skillfully tackles issues of Chinese immigration and labor in the rail industry, as well as gender fluidity and diverse sexualities. Silver on the Road is also an alternate West story, but set in the area between the Spanish territories and the Mississippi River following the successful bid by the American colonies for independence. The main character is a Latina woman who works for the devil, who runs a saloon in the town of Flood.

In addition to these I’ve been reading Letters from Burma as a bit of a nonfiction break and also for research purposes. It’s a very easy read, and really fascinating. I also finished Obelisk Gate on Audible, which was a wonderful performance by Robin Miles, as always. I have mixed feelings about the second book in this series, mostly because I loved the first book so much. It honestly almost stood alone for me. But it was a great story and, once I reached the end, I was definitely back on board with wherever Jemisin wants to take me. I’m currently looking for my next audiobook, so let me know if you have any recommendations!

Whew. What a list. Anyway, chime in and let me know what you have been reading below. ‘Til next time.

Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom

I thought long and hard before writing this post.

This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.

black-tom

All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.

If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.

No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.

With no further ado… Continue reading “Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom”

Release day and the value of audiobooks

Today is the day! Celebrate with me the audio release of Mother of Creation, the first book of The Creation Saga, narrated by Michelle Marie. You can download it through Audible.

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In honor of this release, I want to take a moment to talk a little bit more about why I published an audiobook. Please bear with this. It’s important stuff.

My grandmother is blind. So was my great-grandmother. There’s a good chance my mother will be headed that way, once she hits seventy – that seems to be when the eyes go in our family. It’s hereditary. The condition is called macular degeneration. It is a deterioration of the retina, and currently there is no cure for it. You can read more about it at that link. What it boils down to is that my grandmother has never read any of my books, published or otherwise. That’s not to say she necessarily would want to read them, as I’m not sure fantasy writing is her thing. But the point is that the option is not even there.

Being blind has never been as scary for me as some things, because my great-grandmother was one of my primary caretakers growing up. Macular degeneration doesn’t happen all at once, and blindness, as with many disabilities, exists on a sliding scale. In the early years of her blindness, again probably in her seventies or so, she continued to live independently, landscaping her entire yard, keeping koi, making wine, and generally being a badass. We only moved her to assisted living when the other ravages of age started to pile on – she broke her hip, and started to forget things. It wasn’t about the fact that she couldn’t see much at all by then, but the other typical factors that put someone in a home. Honestly, if I have a hero, it is probably Lucille – not because of the blindness, mind, though that was cool, but for all the things she kept herself busy with that were just beautiful.

My great-grandmother listened to audiobooks pretty regularly. They came on these big bulky tape cartridges that you just slammed down into the player – I suspect they might have been 8 tracks. She also had this eyeglass she used to read things sometimes that magnified them exponentially, but that was only good for bills and the like. She never learned braille, so these were her only pathways to the written word. My grandmother is in a similar situation. It’s audiobooks or bust for her, and likely will be for both my mother and I if we fail to dodge this particular hereditary bullet.

Given all that, I think it’s pretty apparent where I stand on audiobook access. I can’t say I would be as aware of the need to record books if it weren’t for my family history. I like to say that I would be, but a lot of times we don’t think about the world from other perspectives until those perspectives are knocking at our door, demanding to be let in. But I am aware. And I’m lucky to be. There are so many people who deserve good stories, but don’t have the ability to access them. Oftentimes, these are the people who need those stories the most. Living with a disability in the United States is incredibly difficult. Our reliance on cars instead of other forms of public transportation is a huge barrier to people who, for one reason or another, cannot drive. Not being able to reliably get from one place to another means that people with disabilities often are isolated in their homes. Contact from the outside world comes in the form of family members, friends, and home health workers or other caretakers who come to pick them up and make sure they get groceries, perhaps take them to one or two events a week. It is definitely possible to build a healthy life in spite of these challenges, but it doesn’t change the fact that, systemically, the challenges are there. Us able-bodied folks (by society’s norms) don’t have to think about those challenges.When we go to the store to pick up a book, we don’t have to think about the guilt of asking our daughter or cousin to drive us.

Ebooks have been a great advantage, but for the visually impaired audiobooks are still incredibly important.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the audiobook if you haven’t read Mother of Creation in its print form already. And look forward to Daughter of Madness early next year. I’m almost done with the zero draft!

Likability in ASOIF

I’ve spent a lot of time this week reminding myself that I don’t have to be likable. In a way, writing Liana in The Creation Saga has been an exercise in writing an unlikable female character for me. That isn’t to say that I don’t want humans to commiserate with her, or understand her. The opposite, really. I want them to understand all of it and feel that same sort of dysphoria that she feels. I should be able to do betterI must be able to live up to their expectations.

There’s a point, when you are obsessed with likability, where you can slide into this kind of thinking. And it is easy to be obsessed with being likable as a woman. It offers you a sense of protection, however inaccurate that sense is. Likability is a kind of social capital. Politicians rule by it, at least in part. Celebrities live by it. It is a kind of power.

It is, however, fickle as powers go. A person must build their worth on other stuff. Cersei shows us this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Arya. Neither of them are cuddly sorts. We might admire Cersei’s competence at times, or her pure madness, but we certainly don’t like her. And while we pity Arya, hope that we would be as strong as her in the same situation, admire her skills and her bloodthirsty nature, most of us would not be able to hold a conversation with her. We’d be appalled when she slit a man’s throat without explanation. She is stunning and devious, not likable, despite the fact that we, as readers, like her.

The most likable character, in fact, is Sansa. In terms of being someone who could have a conversation with you, entertain you, someone who is generally beautiful and, if not kind, at least not cruel, your best bet is Sansa. Despite this, Sansa is usually the least liked character in the books, at least by readers. This is because Sansa has no power.

I may seem to have contradicted myself there, so let me unpack that.

A person’s worth doesn’t come from the likability, much as we are taught otherwise as women. Sansa swallows the princess narrative hook, line, and sinker. She thinks that if she can just be pretty and witty, she will be safe and cared for. She thinks that beautiful people on the outside must also be beautiful on the inside. We hate her for this, because we recognize very early on that the good do not win in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That good people have already spent the one quality which might help them to survive, which is ruthlessness. But if we met Sansa on the street, we would probably consider her an upstanding girl, a cute little thing. She would be the kind of person we would hope to invite over for tea. We would talk about stories of knights in shining armor and fair queens.

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For the record, I don’t watch the show. That said, here’s Sansa in Game of Thrones looking innocent.
We dislike Sansa not because she is unlikable, but because she has no power to affect her world. She has traded that power for the very likability that we teach little girls like her to strive for every day, with promises that it will protect them.

In some ways, I think Sansa’s character and her development is the most transgressive element of George R.R. Martin’s work.

In my own life, I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate other kinds of power. Not necessarily power over others, but power over myself. I try to be fearless in situations where fear does not help me. I try to be rational in making choices that are best for myself even when those choices may inconvenience others. And, most importantly, I try to quell the need for likability that sometimes comes clamoring out of my gut. When I make decisions to accomplish given outcomes, I recognize that I might be navigating my boat unevenly, listing towards positive reinforcement, begging for someone to recognize my sacrifices. This wastes valuable energy, but it is a human thing, too. We all have inconsistencies, foibles, weirdnesses that make us what we are.

It’s not bad to be kind, to be charismatic. But when it takes you into dangerous waters, you turn that boat around. When your self-worth becomes tied up in how people receive you, you will lose it. Remembering that, as a woman, is hard. Remembering that brief social buoyancy will not protect you from your status as feminine in a society driven by masculine values can be soul-crushing.

After all, it is so easy to want people to like you. But the most interesting people are often the least likable ones.

Werewolves and women

transformation
Not sure who drew this, but it is lovely.

In Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, which I just reread this week, the main character Elena Michaels tells a story. It’s the story of an old European legend about a werewolf that is ravaging a town. In response, the local lord goes out to hunt the werewolf. He lops off its paw as they fight. The werewolf flees. The paw becomes a human hand.

The nobleman is baffled by this. He returns to his castle, hand in tow, and goes to seek out his wife – only to find her cradling the bleeding stump of her arm. Realizing that she is the werewolf that he injured, he kills her. The aggressive, destructive feminine, revealed, is destroyed. There is no place for it in a wife and mother.

This story is related by Elena as a piece of trivia, but it’s really commentary on how she sees herself. What I want to get into today is precisely that – the way that female protagonists in werewolf novels see themselves. I’ve picked three examples: Elena Michaels in Bitten, Vivian from Blood and Chocolate, and Anna from Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs. Full disclosure: This review is full of spoilers. I really enjoyed all three of these books, but there are some interesting parallels in the way that werewolfism is portrayed psychologically for the characters that really struck me.

Of these three characters, none of them chooses to become a werewolf. Elena is bitten by her lover in an effort to keep her with him. The agent of her change is undeniably a man, who is forcing a choice on her for selfish reasons – a metaphorical rape if not an actual one. Anna is changed as a literal act of rape, and is raped and abused continually throughout her early months and years as a werewolf. Again, the agent of her change is a man, and this time not someone she was even considering sharing her life with, but a predator who picked her out for explicitly sadistic reasons. Vivian breaks with the other two stories in that she was born as a werewolf (or loup garoux, to use the novel’s parlance). While she doesn’t choose the life, it is not forced on her but a part of her identity. That said, most of Vivian’s conflict with her identity comes from the fact of her sexuality. As a young female werewolf whose father was the leader of the pack until his death, she is seen as a prize for all of the male werewolves, a way to secure their role as dominants. She is even tricked into a mating ritual with the most alpha werewolf, a man several years her senior. (She does this in order to protect her mother, and in the process essentially weds herself by pack law to a man she had previously been avoiding and rejecting outright. Her mother does not protest.) In other words, all three of these women come into conflict with themselves and their werewolf identities as a product of male objectification or violence, or some combination of the two.

As might be imagined, the main internal plot of these three novels revolves around, to some extent, the desire not to be a werewolf. There is also a corresponding romance plot, wherein each of the three women struggles to find a man who will both respect her and accept her violent nature. In two of the novels (Bitten and Blood and Chocolate) there is a moment where the main character finds herself, either involuntarily or otherwise, revealed as a werewolf, a ‘monster’ that is summarily rejected, to a nice, respectful human male. They are forced back into relationships with their werewolf partners in part because of the circumstances of this reveal – partners that have not previously been partners at all, but manipulators and abusers.

The repetition of this idea is a little troubling. Only Cry Wolf stays away from that particular trope. Anna meets her werewolf mate at the beginning of the book, as a consequence of her own rebellion against her abuse. He is able to emancipate her (with her help) from that abuse, and to help her adjust to her new life by showing her that she is not a monster at all. The violent nature that she has inherited is a product of the violent world she has found herself in, and her goodness as a human being is made no less because of that. For Anna, her wolf becomes a source of solace very early on, protecting her from the worst ravages of her abuse, an alternate personality that keeps her human psychology insulated from what happens to her.

For Elena and Vivian, while they eventually come to terms with their wolf identities, the wolf represents a cost. They are forced to give up their humanity (in the form of their symbolic human lovers) and are essentially trapped by the violent wolf nature. While they each eventually decide that the good things about their wolfness outweigh the bad, and while I reveled in that decision for them, the core of the conflict still meant that accepting their status as a werewolf lost them some of their status as humans. They faced the same conflict as the lady whose story Elena relates, and while their human lords didn’t kill them outright, the symbolic cutting of these two women from the lives of their human lovers is no less a death.

Werewolf books are books about transformation. I’m a huge fan of them, and as mentioned I enjoyed all three of these books. I would still recommend them to people on the basis of my deep werewolf love, and because the main characters are complex and often relatable. I would argue they are relatable because werewolves are relatable, especially for women. The sense that one must conceal one’s negative, aggressive qualities, must play the quiet and passive feminine creature, is drawn out explicitly in Bitten especially. The ability to return to a primal identity as the feminine destroyer goddess – Diana the huntress, Kali the eater of men – is a fascinating and seductive one. But there are definitely troubling overtones in a version of this transformation that relies entirely on males – whether a mate as in the case of Elena, a predator in the case of Anna, or her father’s lineage in the case of Vivian. I would love to see a werewolf book that didn’t lean on these tropes of male domination and abuse.

Guess I’ll just have to write it.