Identifying With Characters Across Gender and Sexuality

492069I just had an article pitch accepted to Brooklyn Magazine‘s Book section!

I’m writing a personal essay on identifying with fictional characters across gender and sexuality. Felix Harrowgate, the protagonist of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, is a gay wizard who navigates his relationships through sex and sexuality. As an asexual woman, I never thought I would identify with him. But it is through identifying with him, that I was able to come out as homo-romantic.

The problem is the last book in The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was published back in 2009. The editor from Brooklyn Magazine is asking me to find a hook to make this article more timely. I’ve considered that the author wrote a well-received stand-alone novel in 2014 (The Goblin Emperor), and co-authored a book with Elizabeth Bear, published in 2015 (An Apprentice to Elves), but even that is not particularly relevant. For context, my piece will be published roughly December/January.

Especially as this coming week is Asexuality Awareness Week (!!!) I’m hoping other aces or people within the queer community (or anyone really) might be able to pitch in some thoughts and suggestions. How can I make this essay relevant to 2016/2017 specifically?

Queerness and literature are the timeless parts of my essay; I’m still searching for the timely pitch. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or ideas.

happy-asexual-awareness-week

 

 

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Books by Women: Doomsday Book

I’ve taken the challenge to read only books by women (and non cis men) for a year. Though one of my favorite authors is female (Sarah Monette and her Doctrine of Labyrinths series), most of my other favorite authors are male. David Anthony Durham, J.R.R. Tolkien and when I browse in a book store my eye wanders to the titles I’m interested in and most of them are written by men. The covers of the books written by men are typically darker, grittier, and appear more intense and riveting: exactly what I want in a novel or story collection.

But I want to take the time to read female authors. Otherwise, I become part of the culture which ignores the work of female authors as chick lit, fluff or all about emotions. Especially because I blog for Luna Station Quarterly, a spec fic journal dedicated to emerging female writers, I need to support these writers as writers and not just female writers. Ideally, women would not be marked in every profession they enter.

One of my best friends explained to me that she can’t get interested in super hero stories because the stories are nearly all written by and about men. The industry isn’t interested in telling the stories of women because women are considered a niche market. Stories are dominated by men in the movies (take a look at movie trailers for instance–most women in the trailer are taking off their clothes and rarely have any speaking lines in the trailer), books (even books written by women tend to have male main characters) and television (programs meant for both genders have male leads). We are essentially saying that women’s stories and women’s voices have no value.

And so I’ve taken the challenge to read books by women for a year. This is a simple way to show support for female authors and the stories they create. Even if you’re still in school and cannot commit to the challenge for a full year, try it for a summer. Build your summer reading list around female authors.

I’ve started off with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1992) winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards. It’s a blend of both science fiction and historical fiction. The novel is comprised of parallel stories one in the future where historians are sent back in time to conduct research and the other where a female historian Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. I would recommend it for its plotting and pacing though the writing is not always the strongest.

Doomsday_Book

I’ll be keeping an updated list throughout the year with each new book I read. Keep a look out for future posts. Next up: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Who are your favorite female authors? What books can you recommend? I’m especially interested in finding female-led comic books.

Fantasy and Gender Equality

I grew up on Tolkien. My mother has been a fan of Lord of the Rings since high school and I was raised on a healthy diet of Middle Earth and never really questioned the lack of female characters. It was the male characters I cared about. The friendship between Aragorn and Legolas I understood, the beauty of the moments between Frodo and Sam I loved, but I didn’t see the purpose of Arwen, and though Eowyn is a joy to read and watch I never felt I could connect to her nature. I never loved her as a character. It has always been the male characters who were the ones I related to, and generally that is still the truth.

But, as much as I would love for this blog to just be about Tolkien and the amazing world he created, I want to talk less about gender disparity in Lord of the Rings and more about a lesser known fantasy series I came across over the summer. Now, I had pretty  much given up on Fantasy. After Lord of the Rings it’s difficult to be impressed because you see imitations everywhere. I had gotten sick of the hero-on-a-magic-quest series, or worse, the strong-female-lead-on-a-magic-quest-who-stops-being-strong-when-romance-is-involved. Romance is always involved.

As such, it was a breath of fresh, though slightly disturbing, air to read Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series.

Melusine is the first novel, followed by The Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. For the purposes of this blog I’ll be focusing mainly on Melusine. The story is heavily character driven with the two main characters, Felix and Mildmay, sharing first person narration that alternates with each section. Surprisingly enough this is never confusing because the two speakers could not be more different in their voices. Felix is a wizard in the city of Melusine, but before he gained this status, he was a child prostitute bought by a man named Malkar who, in an abusive (to put it mildly) relationship, trains Felix to be a gentleman. Mildmay is a kept-thief and ex-assassin turned cat burglar, who lives in the Lower City of Melusine and lives off the money from his crimes.

The plot begins when Felix goes back to his former lover and master Malkar who rapes him and uses Felix’s magic to break the Virtu, the orb that holds and channels all the magic of the wizards in the city.

So what does this have to do with feminism? On the surface, nothing. The two main characters are both men and there are few female characters to be found. Yet although this might seem like a androcentric novel it does more for gender equality than I have seen in almost any fantasy series.

To start with, Felix is gay. The brilliance of this move is that his relationships are never sensationalized because he is with a man, and his sexuality is treated as being perfectly normal. This is helpful for feminism because gay men are given ‘female’ status and ‘female’ characteristics contributes to the notion that being a woman is a terrible thing. If you are a woman it means you are not a man and therefore you are less. By treating Felix and his relationships as as normal as Mildmay’s, who’s straight, Sarah Monette promotes equality between the sexes.

She continues to subvert tropes of male and female stereotypes with her use of abusive relationships and conceptions of rape. In Mildmay’s case, he grows up a kept-thief (a child owned by a Keeper who uses the children to scavenge around the city making or stealing money) under a female Keeper who sexually abuses him when he is in his teens. In Monette’s world rape is not always male on female, but is just as damaging if it female on male (Mildmay) or male on male (Felix). The trauma of these experiences follow the characters throughout the series because rape is rape no matter who the rapist or the victim is.

Perhaps the biggest stereotype that is debunked is that men cannot be emotional. The story is told from the first person point of view of two men and though they often deny what they are feeling in dialogue, there can be no mistake that they do, in fact, have emotions and these emotions are never played for laughs. Both Felix and Mildmay go through harrowing circumstances, both before the story begins and throughout their journeys. Their emotions are never ‘feminized’ even by other men in the story.

And there are a lot of men to keep track of. As I mentioned before, there are still few female characters but the ones who play a role are never stereotypes. The main female character is Mehitabel Parr, an actress with a shady past who comes into the story in The Virtu and plays a major role in The Mirador. Though she has a relationship with Mildmay it is understood that though she sleeps with him it is because she thinks he would enjoy it and that she might as well. She is the I-take-no-bullshit-from-anyone type of woman who, when she gets her own passages of first person narration in The Mirador, is shown to be just as complex as she seemed when Mildmay or Felix would describe her in The Virtu. She was well rounded, and though she had sex, it was not her defining characteristic. In fact,it is refreshing that she had sex because she wanted to and owned her sexuality.

The other female character is Corbie, introduced in Corambis. She is a prostitute who wants to be a wizard, but has no training. It does not help that the Wizarding schools in Corambis are sexist and will barely admit her once Felix becomes her teacher and she shows an aptitude. Her learning is the focus not her prostitution. This is also the only time in the series where sexism is directly addressed and though it is addressed overtly I think it is for the best. In order to position Corbie’s character so her arc was on her learning to be a wizard she had to overcome the sexist institutions that were keeping her uneducated, in poverty, and in prostitution. She fought the patriarchy to a certain extent and this did not need to be subtle.

Subtlety is when Sarah Monette creates two male characters in a world dominated by men in power, and still creates a series that promotes gender equality. If you get a chance read the series. I had a difficult time at first, because there is graphic sex and multiple graphic rape scenes. If you are interested in new ways to weave feminism into fiction though, stick with it, the characterization is great and no matter how graphic and disturbing it might be, every scene serves a  purpose. Read it for the characters and read it for what it does to promote equality.