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Amy Tenbrink: Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Amy Tenbrink!

Witch, Please: An Apologia for and Indictment of Mean-Girls Stories in Young Adult Fantasy Literature
By Amy Tenbrink

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw is premised on a legend—and because this is fantasy literature, the legend is true. In 1822, three white sisters—Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel—moved to Sparrow, Oregon. The sisters were charming, witty, beautiful—and available. The men of Sparrow were entranced; their wives, less so. The three sisters were accused of witchcraft and drowned in the harbor—only to rise again, endlessly sexy, in order to drown three boys of Sparrow in that same harbor every year thereafter.


The mean-girl trope is so common that it hardly necessitates a description: A thin, beautiful, sexy, rich teenaged girl terrorizes her high school’s students through meanness, manipulation, and back-stabbing—and despite this, or perhaps because of it, everyone clamors for her attention and approval. As Roger Ebert said in his 2004 review of Sleepover, “I take it as a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blond, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation. This character is followed by two friends who worship her and are a little bit shorter.”

Why are you so obsessed with me?

Once you begin deconstructing the mean-girls trope, however, you quickly realize that there’s a girl-power version: The entire trope—the entire casting of powerful girls as superficial, catty, and mean—is nothing more than a heteropatriarchal construct designed to villainize teenaged girls who have discovered how to seize power from within the system.

But continue with that deconstruction and you’ll find that a white women’s feminism version exists as well: A mean girl is ultimately a white teenaged girl who is willing to not only conform to the restrictions imposed by the white heteropatriarchy, but to weaponize her conformance against those girls who are deliberately excluded—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—in order to gain a limited amount of power from the white heteropatriarchy itself.

So let’s start at the very beginning: What is a mean girls story?

  • Aspiration: An ordinary teenaged girl aspires to be part of the popular clique of mean girls at her school. In fantasy literature, this clique is often the school’s coven.

  • Opportunity: For some relatively random reason, our ordinary girl has a chance to join the mean-girls clique—but only if she transforms herself. She becomes a dangerous, dragon-lipstick-wearing, miniskirt-sporting hot girl. In fantasy literature, if she is successful in her transformation, she’ll also acquire magic.

  • Achievement: Our ordinary girl becomes a popular girl: Everyone knows her name, everyone thinks she’s hot, and she might be nominated for prom queen. She might be a witch or otherwise monstrous. Except for her queen-bee mean girl, she’s invincible.

  • Villainization: Our ordinary girl becomes a mean girl. Spending time with mean girls both normalizes their behavior and demonstrates the power inherent in such behavior.

  • Girlfight: The queen bee stabs our ordinary girl in the back, generally over a boy.

  • Victory: Often, our ordinary girl rises to the top of the mean-girl food chain, dethroning—and replacing—the queen bee.

  • Loss: As part of this process, our ordinary girl loses all her old friends, but doesn’t really care because her new status feels like friendship.

  • Redemption: Someone upholding the heteropatriarchy inevitably intervenes and convinces our ordinary girl that she’s no longer “nice.” Our ordinary girl is devastated and, in her devastation, redeems herself. She gives up her dragon lipstick, her miniskirts, her magic, her power, and goes back to being an ordinary girl. In other words, she again subjects herself to the rules and structures of the heteropatriarchy.

Upon first glance, mean-girls stories seem immensely problematic: A nice, ordinary girl transforms herself into a skinnier, blonder, sexier beast in order to access the most exclusive club at school: the circle of hot, rich girls, with dangerous tongues and gorgeous boyfriends, who terrify everyone and stalk the school hallways while people scurry out of the way. Our heroine becomes powerful by becoming, definitionally, mean.

From the moment our heroine completes her transformation, we—the reader, the viewer, the consumer—inherently know that she’s no longer someone to root for.

We are the heteropatriarchy, judging our heroine for her failure to conform to heteropatriarchal standards: of niceness, of passiveness, of civility. To again like our heroine, we have to wait for her redemption—but that redemption invariably comes only after she’s given up her new look and her dangerous tongue, renounced her mean-girl friends, and again a nice-and-not-at-all-dangerous girl, subordinated herself the heteropatriarchy. The threat of powerful girls has been removed, balance is again restored to the heteropatriarchal universe, and we are again allowed to like our nice-girl heroine.


The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers

The best example of the mean-girls trope in fantasy literature is perhaps Lynn Weingarten’s The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, where white heroine Lucy, just dumped by her boyfriend and crying in the school bathroom, receives the chance of a lifetime from white mean-girl witch, Olivia: break a boy’s heart in ten days and become a witch. Lucy does, accidentally and almost apologetically, and achieves her heart’s desire: magic coursing through her veins; a new, gorgeous look; formidable friends; and the power to do virtually anything she wants. All of this is true until the sequel, The Book of Love, when Lucy is sorry she ever lusted for power and gives it all up, wanting to be a “normal,” powerless girl once more.


Apologia

Despite the obvious problems with a trope centered around meanness, mean-girls stories are fundamentally about female power: what it takes to get it, what it takes to keep it, and just how unseemly it is to want it or wield it. These stories are simultaneously a massive interrogation of and a massive failure to interrogate feminine power structures.

In Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace posit that every child wants three things out of life: connection, recognition, and power. Fundamentally, teenaged girls also want what everyone wants: connection, recognition, and power—and enough of each to feel both in control and less insecure. But teenaged girls run into an unfortunate intersection between their brains’ stage of development and relentless messaging from heteropatriarchal agents that what they are isn’t good enough. The quest for control and security is seemingly impossible.

So if you’re a teenaged girl, you’re at a time in your life when you’re emotional, but your brain hasn’t yet learned not to be reckless. You’re susceptible to other people’s opinions of you, especially your peers’. You have no control over huge aspects of your life. You want to have exciting experiences. You want drama, you want relationships, you want kissing and maybe sex. Your brain is primed for you to made bad decisions, in the direction of excitement and new things, based on peer pressure.

And then you add in the messaging of the heteropatriarchy.

Our heteropatriarchal society values good girls: Girls who are nice, passive, silent, and polite. Girls who defer and submit. The true purpose of a girl under the heteropatriarchy is, first, to be a breeder for the heteropatriarchal family unit, and second, to support her husband’s aspirations. This is, of course, antithetical to any dreams or aspirations or even thoughts that she might have—all of which are cast aside in response to the heteropatriarchy’s demands that she adopt marriage to a cisgender man and having children as her own dreams and aspirations. As political scientist Angie Maxwell has said, “Modern sexism describes feelings of resentment and distrust towards feminists and working women. Rather than believing that a woman cannot do a particular job, folks who express Modern sexism resent a woman for wanting to do that job.” To avoid upsetting that particular apple cart, teenaged girls must not want a goal, a job, or really anything that isn’t focused on a boy.

Rather than diving into the rabbit hole of the heteropatriarchy’s expectations of women, let’s focus on the degree to which teenaged girls have internalized this messaging. We teach them to live up to an impossible, exclusive physical standard. We teach them to diet, to lighten and straighten their hair, to whiten their teeth, to wear a face-full of make-up, to ruin their bodies with high heels, to enlarge their breasts. We teach them that expensive clothes are a must-have and if those clothes are revealing, so much the better. We teach them to smile, to be “happy,” to never rock the boat. We teach them to be dependent and helpless because boys don’t like girls who don’t need them. We teach them to be sexually available to boys, even when they aren’t feeling it or aren’t even interested in boys. We teach them to give in to sexting demands and sex demands and to not make a big deal about assault or stealthing or rape because to do so might ruin a boy’s life.

We teach girls to be everything that the cisgender men running our heteropatriarchal culture want in a woman.

Because of these endless strictures, teenaged girls—like so many women under the heteropatriarchy—are obsessed with conformance. Who has the right hair, the right make-up, the right clothes? Who is the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest? All with an eye toward attracting the right boys because the ultimate question—the ultimate status symbol—is: Who is dating the right boy—and here “right” is also defined according to heteropatriarchal standards, this time in terms of performative hypermasculinity.

Which becomes, very quickly, a question of competition. Girls have internalized American cultural messages of rugged individualism and meritocratic advancement just as much as their male peers, but we teach girls that these traits aren’t for them, that girls should be nurturing and kind, and that female competition is unseemly and unacceptable. We don’t want women competing for jobs, for venture capital, for elected positions because then they’d be competing with men. Girls are left with conflicting messaging: Be all that you can be—within the limiting confines of what the heteropatriarchy permits.

Which means that, after the heteropatriarchy has torn them apart and rebuilt them, the only competition left to girls is who can best succeed at playing heteropatriarchy. So girls compete within the confines of the heteropatriarchy—and when they win, when they succeed and are the thinnest, the blondest, the richest, when they’re banging the most masculine boy in school, there’s power in that success. Even if you’re playing a rigged game—and teenaged girls are—there’s power in winning the game.

But again, mean-girls stories are necessarily premised on the heteropatriarchy. Mean girls derive their power, directly and solely, from romantic and sexual exchanges with cisgender boys: dating boys, fucking boys, controlling boys’ attention, satisfying the male gaze, and denying other girls access to boys. While mean girls’ power might initially seem satiating—being a girl with magic and enough power to be immune from most consequences—that power is ultimately derived from men and ultimately requires pleasing men: Mean girls have power only because of the nature of the heteropatriarchy and only because men allow them limited power within those confines. If men were uninterested in sharing those romantic and sexual exchanges with mean girls, mean girls would have nothing.

Rather than attempting to find power in rejecting the heteropatriarchy, mean girls ultimately find power in embracing it.

While this power might look minimal to us, in high school, where so much of your life is in someone else’s control and when your brain feeds you daily doses of insecurity and desire for exciting experiences, this power is everything.

To achieve that success and that power, as part of that competition to see who can play heteropatriarchy best, teenaged girls not only build themselves up—for some value of “up”—they tear each other down. Which begs the next question of why girls, unlike boys, don’t simply fight like boys? Why don’t they just punch each other? Why the meanness, the manipulation, and the back-stabbing?

The inevitable answer is, of course, because those are the only tools society allows them—and frankly, girls weren’t allowed those tools at all. They just took them.

Odd Girl Out

As Rachel Simmons notes in Odd Girl Out, “Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into nonphysical, indirect, and covert forms.” Our society teaches girls that aggression and anger are for boys, not girls. We teach them to cry, not rage. And not only are girls prohibited from fighting, they are taught not to speak up or speak out—not only vis-à-vis boys, but vis-à-vis everyone. They are taught to be “nice” and “perfect,” which are too often synonyms for “silent” and “passive.”

But none of that makes the conflict disappear; it just makes girls find another path: Since they aren’t permitted to address the conflict head-on, they come at it sideways with back-stabbing, lying, whisper campaigns, icing, “jokes,” and slurs. As Anne Campbell has noted in Men, Women, and Aggression, men tend to use aggression to control their environment, while women believe aggression will ruin their relationships. Rather than ruin those relationships, girls simply use the relationships themselves as weapons.

But the mean-girl isn’t all manipulation and back-stabbing.

So often, women have to take their power where they can find it. While it’s easy to read a book about a girl who transforms herself into a witch by stealing the only power the heteropatriarchy allows her and to criticize her for doing so—perhaps because we fail to recognize the nature of her subversion, perhaps because her subversion makes us uncomfortable, or perhaps because we expect her to recognize and sacrifice her own support of the heteropatriarchy itself—it’s also hard to fault a girl for taking one of the few sources of power available to her. Our society allows girls so little power, finding endless fault in how they look, how they dress, how they speak, the things they like, and even their market power; why not applaud them for taking some in the form of lipstick, miniskirts, and magic?

Because the heteropatriarchy would have us position the mean girls in these stories—with all their power—as a villain, an adversary, or even a joke:

  • Villainy: We position her as a villain, nominally, because she’s mean. But that’s just a convenient excuse. In fact, we find her to be a villain because she defies stereotypes.

  • Adversary: We position her as an adversary of the protagonist. They can’t share a boyfriend. They can’t share the top of the food-chain. It’s one or the other, so to achieve her ultimate dream, our ordinary girl has to knock the mean girl down—which perpetuates that pervasive heteropatriarchal desire for girls to compete for boys’ attention, ceding ultimate power to boys and men.

  • Joke: Even worse, the mean girl is often the object of ridicule or scorn, either canonically or by consumers. We love Mean Girls. We love to mock Regina George. Karen can’t even spell the word “orange.” But these girls are everything we deride as a culture. They’re into clothes and makeup. They’re shallow and vapid. They’re boy-crazy. They upspeak and use vocal fry. They wear pink, yes, on Wednesdays. When we mock teenaged girls—and we do—we mock mean girls. But we don’t mock them for their meanness; we mock them for their femaleness.

If you interrogate this trope from a slightly different perspective, however, the mean girl is not villain, adversary, or joke, but the devil who offers an ordinary girl a deal.

She’ll give you what you crave—popularity, magic, power—but at what cost? Defiance of expectations. Is our ordinary girl willing to give up being nice, being obedient, being subordinate to the endless structures of the heteropatriarchy and claim her power?


Sawkill Girls

In Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand, two white sisters move to Sawkill Rock in the wake of their father’s death. The younger sister, a worrier, befriends Zoey, a black, asexual girl determined to discover what happened to her missing best friend. The elder sister, a soon-to-be victim, befriends blond, white Val, the rich girl with the hot boyfriend who lives in a mansion. As the book progresses, you realize that Val is the latest accomplice in her matriarchal line’s violent service to the male monster of the island—Val is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy’s appetite incarnate.


Indictment

When you examine comparative power, and girl-on-girl policing of that comparative power, mean-girl-ism goes from something almost empowering to something much uglier. In On Call: Political Essays, June Jordan says, “Patriarchy too often throws women crumbs in return for a limited form of power. Women who accept those crumbs are expected in return to uphold patriarchy, internalize its dictates, police other women and never forget that power bestowed is power that can be retracted.”

When researchers, among them Rachel Simmons (Odd Girl Out) and Rosalind Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), asked girls which characteristics were desirable in girls, the answers were predictable: pretty, thin, tall, big boobs, blond hair, blue eyes, trendy, expensive clothes, smiling, happy, fake, stupid, helpless, dependent, and sexually experienced, among others. Conversely, when asked which characteristics were undesirable, girls answered similarly predictably: ugly, athletic, fat, dark features, masculine, queer, disabilities, wrong clothes, poor, serious, brainy, opinionated, pushy, independent, egocentric, passionate, inexperienced, and promiscuous.

Teenaged girls have weaponized conformance.

When teenaged girls weaponize conformance, that is what it looks like: racist, sizeist, homophobic, ableist, classist. Hotness, popularity, and success—winning at playing heteropatriarchy, if you will—requires internalizing the rules of the heteropatriarchy and then policing those rules with respect to others. As with so many things, those rules are rigged so that many girls—black and brown girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, poor girls—cannot even play. While on the one hand, we might applaud the mean-girls trope for portraying girls seizing power from the heteropatriarchy itself, on the other hand, that seeming girl-power is nothing more than skinny, rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied girls weaponizing conformance to white heteropatriarchal standards in exchange for an iota of power, all in service to the perpetuation of the white heteropatriarchy itself.

As you might imagine, mean-girl-ism is a largely white middle-class construct—because the white middle class is where the confines of the heteropatriarchy are most rigid. Unsurprisingly, almost all books on mean girls are virtually silent on the construct of race or class, assuming rather that the white, middle class is an appropriate microcosm from which to extrapolate universal truths. But in Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons delves into this in some detail, noting, inter alia, that “For some girls, silence and indirection are neither attractive nor an option. They are instead signs of weakness. I found this to be true especially among the girls I met whose lives were marked by oppression. For them, assertiveness and anger were tools of spiritual strength.”

Simmons’s research shows that communities of color—and here, the research generally fails to differentiate between different races and ethnicities—raise their girls differently, as do lower-class families. They raise them to be authentic in a way that white, middle-class communities don’t. They raise them to recognize all of their feelings, not just those prized by the white heteropatriarchy. They raise them to stand up for themselves and even sometimes to physically fight.

This Will Be My Undoing

For a number of reasons—racism, classism, the fact that these girls are less susceptible to the messaging of the heteropatriarchy, the fact that these girls cannot even achieve the prized traits of the heteropatriarchy—these girls are also frequent targets of mean girls. Morgan Jerkins in This Will Be My Undoing tells a heart-rending story of being a black girl who just wanted to make the cheerleading squad. After practicing and practicing, perfecting her voice and nailing her jumps, she was devastated to learn that she didn’t make the squad—and to learn that she was never going to make the squad because she couldn’t achieve those white heteropatriarchal standards for women: thin, blond, hot, white.

To maintain their power in the heteropatriarchy, mean girls must police conformance. They must bully girls who cannot or will not conform. Without conformance, the building blocks of the heteropatriarchy start to crumble—and again, the immediate and direct source of these girls’ power is, in fact, the heteropatriarchy itself. Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields note in The Long Southern Strategy, “[Y]ou do need to protect men if you’re completely dependent on them financially and economically.” Maxwell and Shields said that in the context of dismantling the Southern Strategy, but it’s applicable here as well.

Moreover, the proximity and tokenism forms of power that are evident in hundreds of years of white-women’s history and power structures are evident here as well. By crafting conformance standards that black and brown girls cannot meet and then granting white girls power—through proximity to white men and the tokenism inherent in those standards—in exchange for ruthlessly policing those standards, the white heteropatriarchy perpetuates its own power, with only a minor, limiting sharing of that power with only white women.

Women, Race, and Class

This looks—unsurprisingly—similar to the history of white-women’s feminism in the United States. As Angela Davis explores in Women, Race, and Class, with the advent of industrialization, when the home was no longer the manufacturing hub of the community, when “woman” became closely aligned with “wife” and “mother,” when white women lost much of their power, economic and otherwise, to factory foremen (who then oppressed the white women’s working class), white women began to organize. But in many cases, that organization—sometimes negligently, but often intentionally—excluded women of color. From the First Wave’s compromises with white supremacists to the lynchings of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were justified as protecting the white woman from the black man, to the Second Wave’s assertions that feminism must be about gender to the exclusion of other oppressions, white women’s movements in the United States have a long and awful history of specifically gaining power by oppressing others.

Mean girls—with their white skin, their blond hair, their blue eyes, with their willingness to uphold the white heteropatriarchy in exchange for the tiniest bit of power—are perpetuating a long history of white-women’s feminism in the United States.

So while you might assume that mean girls are awful because they are mean, the truth is that mean girls are awful because they are in the master’s house, using the master’s tools.

Like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, like the NAWSA’s silence on lynchings despite the groundbreaking work of Ida B. Wells, like the women who listened to Teddy Roosevelt’s State of the Union in 1906 and heeded his warnings about race suicide, like the Southern white women who demanded that the Republication Party drop the ERA from its platform in the late 1970s, and like the white women today who continue to support and reinforce exclusionary beauty standards.

Like their white foremothers, mean girls cause cascading damage. Like their white foremothers, mean girls’ power is premised on both proximity and tokenism. Like their white foremothers, mean girls have ascended to a rather limited form of power by policing girls of color, working class girls, fat girls, queer girls, disabled girls, and others. Like their white foremothers, the longstanding exchanges between white-women’s feminism and the white heteropatriarchy are all too apparent in the transactions in which mean girls engage in order to establish their power.


The Lost Coast

In Amy Rose Capetta’s The Lost Coast, white, queer Danny arrives in Tempest, a tiny town in northern California among the towering redwoods. Danny almost immediately encounters the Grays: queer witches, outcasts at school who seem to think nothing of that status. The Grays need Danny. They summoned her to California to help find their missing friend, whose body is still going about its quotidian routine, but without any spark of the girl herself. This story of witchy, queer girls, who are perfectly comfortable being witchy, queer girls, who welcome another witchy, queer girl easily enough, is remarkable in what’s not there: any form of mean-girl-ism. Except for Black, bisexual Hawthorn, these girls have little interest in romantic or sexual exchanges with boys, and in its absence, they have little interest in competing for boys, conforming to heteropatriarchal standards, or even the heteropatriarchy itself.


In the end, if we want to dismantle teenaged girls’ meanness and the accompanying back-stabbing, lying, and manipulation, we need to dismantle so much more: the white heteropatriarchy. We need to remove the societal strictures that grant girls such limited forms of expression and power. We need to permit them hopes and dreams that don’t revolve around cisgender boys. We need to encourage them to compete in many arenas and to resolve their conflicts openly and honestly, without fear that their relationships are not perfect. We need to permit them full humanity.


Amy TenbrinkBy day, Amy Tenbrink dons her supergirl suit and practices transactional and intellectual property law as an executive vice president for a media company. By night, she dons her supergirl cape and plans literary conferences and reads over a hundred books a year. She likes nothing quite so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

Faye Bi: A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Faye Bi!

A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”
by Faye Bi

Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “The Husband Stitch” published online in 2014 and is the first story in her acclaimed short fiction collection, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s the story of a woman with a green ribbon around her neck, who meets a boy who becomes her husband, and with whom she raises a son. Before I continue, Machado’s fairytale focuses on a cis-het relationship, so I will be using that language in my analysis. As a reader, I acknowledge the pervasive and structural nature of toxic masculinity. Male privilege affects queer, nonbinary and transgender people in ways that are similar, but often more violent.

Upon their first meeting, the boy asks the narrator if he can touch her ribbon. She says no. “There are two rules,” the narrator shares, “he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon.” The ribbon represents a few things: her voice, given its placement around her throat; a piece of herself more sacred than her body, which she gives to her husband freely; and, with the introduction of other women with ribbons, an essential part of their identity women choose to keep for themselves and not to share with men, even their husbands and sons.

With “The Husband Stitch,” Machado has woven folklore, storytelling, and women’s pain and experiences—and men’s attempts to violate or invalidate them—in a social horror that too successfully captures the current zeitgeist in an era of #MeToo and #NotAllMen.

First, the green ribbon in “The Husband Stitch” is a reference to a European folk motif in which a red thread is worn around a person’s neck, which marks the place where their head was severed and then reattached. The most popular iteration of this motif—one that Machado may have borrowed from—is “The Girl with the Green Ribbon” in Alvin Schwartz’s 1985 children’s story collection In a Dark, Dark Room. There, too, a man (named Alfred) meets a woman (named Jenny) with a green ribbon around her neck, who agrees to marry him on the condition that he never touches it. Years later when Jenny is on her deathbed, she unties her ribbon and her head rolls off. The common adult response to this story from a cursory internet search is a) that it messed them up as a child, b) shock that it was published for children as young as four, and c) that Alfred had clearly been duped. Jenny was an “undead liar,” and Alfred should have pulled off Jenny’s ribbon far earlier!

Machado, of course, gives no fucks about Alfred. In “The Husband Stitch,” she reimagines “Girl with the Green Ribbon” solely from the girl’s point of view, our narrator. Given the strategic placement of the ribbon around her neck, it symbolizes her voice—and thus, her stories, perspective, truth, and literal speech. In the parenthetical introduction to the story itself, Machado’s narrator sets us up to read the story aloud, determining the voices to use for each character: for the boy who will become her husband, “robust with his own good fortune,” and for her father, “like your father, or the man you wish was your father.” For herself, the narrator tells us: “high-pitched, forgettable” and for all other women, “interchangeable with [her] own.”

We can deduce, then, that the narrator’s stories reflect a universality of themes women will recognize in their relationships.

Our narrator tells us then, how she meets a boy who both her parents are “extremely fond” of, and who they believe will be a good man. She tells us, too, that she and her boy have a lot of very intense, very consensual, very passionate sex throughout their courtship and their marriage, just in case anyone would try to read her boundary setting of not touching her green ribbon as withholding sex. By nearly all accounts, the narrator’s husband can be read as loving: faithful, polite to her family, a hardworking employee, an excited expectant father, and a supportive co-parent. Machado, in establishing a character who will eventually stand as a villain, has not depicted the narrator’s husband as a one-note misogynistic asshole. He has honorable qualities and these descriptions make him all the more recognizable as the dependable male family members in our lives: our husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons.

At the same time, the narrator’s husband’s words of love, romance, and family can equally be interpreted as ominous, persistent, and violating.

He asks her worst secret, and she confides in him the pain of her molestation by a teacher. The day he proposes, he tells her, “I feel like I know so many parts of you…And now, I will know all of them.” When she tells him she is pregnant, he is thrilled, but asks in the next breath, “Will the child have a ribbon?” Perhaps the most disturbing is the joke he makes with the male doctor after our narrator gives birth: “You offer that extra stitch, right?” He is of course referring to “the husband stitch,” when a doctor sews up a woman’s uterus after childbirth to make sex pleasurable for her husband. Doctors (a profession long dominated by men after midwives lost influence) have denied that the husband stitch exists, and to this day it remains a procedure of speculation… but wouldn’t we ask women who have lived these experiences?

Yet, the passage that’s most illustrative of these violations, and the most enraging, is when the narrator’s husband touches her ribbon without her consent. She has lots of sex—consensual sex!—with him in many, many places: on park benches, in the woods, mere moments before they walk down the aisle to get married, in train cars. But she is most upset and most vulnerable the times he touches her ribbon. When he tries to untie it in a bout of lovemaking, she feels so violated and stops immediately. He tells her:


– A wife, he says, should have no secrets from her husband.
– I don’t have any secrets, I tell him.
– The ribbon.
– The ribbon is not a secret, it’s just mine.
– Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?
I do not answer.
He is silent for a long minute. Then,
– A wife should have no secrets.
My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry.
– I have given you everything you have ever asked for, I say. Am I not allowed this one thing?
– I want to know.
– You think you want to know, I say, but you do not.
– Why do you want to hide it from me?
– I am not hiding it. It is not yours.

Her simple request and his dogged persistence here only magnifies the pervasiveness of his male privilege and entitlement. She has no secret about the ribbon, and answers none of his questions. But he sees this visible reminder of something to which he believes he has a right. That he has a right to what he believes is a secret, because he does not have access to it, nor can he claim ownership of it—and by extension, of her.

For the narrator, the ribbon is more than just a physical object; Machado suggests it’s sacred to femininity and more private even than parts of her body, even her uterus. This small piece of herself is essential to her identity.

The relationship between the narrator and her son changes, too, around the ribbon. When he is a baby, her son treats and touches her ribbon “no differently than he would an ear or finger.” But as he ages, more layers build between mother and son. When he tries to pull at it, she rebuffs him and shakes a can of pennies. Machado lets us know this moment is the same as shaking a can of pennies and startling the person next to you. “Observe their expression of startled fear, and then betrayal. Notice how they never look at you in exactly the same way for the rest of your days.” And finally, when he is old enough to ask point blank about it directly, she must refuse. “I tell him that we are all different, and sometimes you should not ask questions. I assure him that he’ll understand when he is grown.” And like the narrator’s husband, Machado does not depict her son as categorically bad or even ignorant, but as a kind, gentle soul, who fights bullies and waits to walk with a neighbor boy who is slower than the others. It’s that he must be taught boundaries—and to his credit, he respects them—though our poor narrator is constantly on guard to protect this part of herself.

With husband and son, Machado shows that even “good, loving” men aren’t exempt from transgressions, which is what makes “The Husband Stitch” a brilliant horror story and all-too-close for comfort.

Interspersed with interactions with her family, the narrator has “always been a teller of stories,” and Machado expertly weaves the tale with anecdotes and retellings of other horror stories or spooky folk tales. Even if you are unfamiliar with them, as I was, it doesn’t detract from “The Husband Stitch”; familiarity only contributes another layer of appreciation of her craft. These stories range from the narrator’s father telling her that there couldn’t have been stubby toes among the potatoes at the grocery store even though she saw them with her own eyes, to the daughter whose mother died from illness and the entire city gaslighting her so she might not believe she had a mother at all. Each story has the reader question women’s voices and experiences and whether or not they are to be believed. Many of them lead to a woman’s demise—whether she followed her own instincts and was right (“Graveyard Girl”), put her faith in a man that got them into deep shit (“Serial Killer Parking Lot”), or self-sacrificed her own comfort and pain merely to satisfy a man (“Where’s My Liver?”). These asides not only propel the narrator’s timeline forward, but force us to revisit her husband and son’s varying degrees of fixation with her ribbon and its eventual consequences.

When the narrator discovers women’s spaces, her perspective shifts. The text suggests that all women have ribbons somewhere—the fact that neither her son nor husband have ribbons—and the narrator meets other women with ribbons of all sizes and colors tied around various body parts. In every case, and like in Schwartz’s story, the ribbon is present, visible and never explained. She commiserates with another mother at her son’s school with a pale yellow ribbon on her finger. “It’s such a bother isn’t it?” she tells the narrator, as it gets constantly tangled when she sews costumes for the play. The narrator attends an art class, where a woman with a red ribbon around her ankle poses nude for a figure drawing session. The narrator and the ribbon-ankled model bump into each other at the coffee shop afterward, and the narrator is so captivated, both emotionally and sexually. The model says she has a daughter, and our narrator is afraid to ask the specifics of raising a “girl-child” as opposed to a son with no ribbon. When she reluctantly discusses details of the other woman’s ribbon after being prodded by her husband, she feels a burning shame and never goes back to that art class, as if she has infringed upon another woman’s privacy.

But while these ribbons are visible and tangible in Machado’s text, they stand in for any kind of boundary a woman might not want a man to cross.

Like a man feeling entitled to a woman’s body because she is his wife or because he paid for her dinner, or a son being old enough to ask about a personal matter that his mother does not want to tell him. It can be an anonymous internet commenter (likely male) invalidating a woman’s story with a “pics or it didn’t happen,” or especially, as this essay was originally written in Fall 2018, a group of white male congressmen questioning a psychology professor (through a female proxy, of course) about her sexual assault, making her relive her trauma on national television as she and her family receive death threats. And she is so calm, accommodating and helpful, while her assaulter shows up a few hours later and throws a huge tantrum demanding that his position on the nation’s highest court is owed to him. And that, even if we do believe her, what can we do about it? Any instance of a man demanding a woman’s smile, conversation, affection, or time. All manners of microaggressions such as not being called by the name you choose for yourself, or having a doctor, vendor, official, or other authority figure address a male spouse first. Even though our narrator in “The Husband Stitch” does literally everything—emotionally and sexually—to please her husband, he still feels that he deserves access to her ribbon. He still feels like he deserves to know.

This masculine persistence is so incredibly wearying it’s unsurprising that the narrator eventually gives in to her husband’s unrelenting obsession. Even after successfully and happily raising a son and sending him off into the world, milestone after milestone, he still wants to touch it. “Do you want to untie the ribbon? I ask him. After these many years, is that what you want of me?” When she, despondent, finally allows him to do it, he does so gaily and greedily. His ultimate betrayal is both infuriating and pathetic, though you could interpret his actions as at best, curiosity killed the cat or prodding a dangerous animal with a stick, it is much more plausible to read “The Husband Stitch” as a woman’s husband who becomes a monster out of his own male privilege by destroying the only boundary she kept, on the one thing she kept sacred for herself, and that didn’t belong to him.

By depicting the ribbon as a uniquely feminine feature, a shared experience yet individual to each woman, Machado skillfully defends a woman’s right to privacy and shows a man—the narrator’s husband and to a lesser degree, her son—sometimes ignorantly, often willfully, attempting to violate it. When we talk of hearing, believing, and heeding to women’s words, Machado shows even “good” men fail to do this through her sympathetic portrayals of men. As with great horror writers, she dramatizes the social horrors of the day and captures the intangible fear women have of not being believed and their experiences invalidated or called into question, not just from acquaintances or strangers, but from the people closest to us.


Faye BiFaye Bi is the director of publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and spends the rest of her time reading, cycling, pondering her next meal, and being part of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is equally happy in walkable cities and sprawling natural vistas. You can follow her on Twitter @faye_bi.

Emma Whitney: What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Emma Whitney!

What Is It with Us and “Good Royalty”?
By Emma Whitney

Girls of Paper and FireNatasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a treasure to me. Not because it is a perfect book (is there any such thing as a perfect book?) but because it is the first YA fantasy work I have read in years where the monarchy is clearly the antagonist. There is no “good” monarch waiting in the wings to rescue their people, but instead a whisper of revolution and behind it the knowledge that government structured around a concept of inherent inequality can never offer true freedom.

Why is it that, in YA fantasy literature, we so often write about the “good” monarch? Not that we don’t have bad ones, too. But the answer to a bad monarch usually seems to be a good monarch rather than the dismantling of a system that creates people with such a mass of concentrated power. For every Girls of Paper and Fire, I have seen a mountain of books where the seemingly problematic monarch is “only trying to do what is best” or, if we do have an evil king, the problems will be fixed by returning the “true” queen to the throne. There are a hundred variations on this, but only one story in a hundred seems to take the time to ask if it could maybe be the power structure itself that is creating the fundamental problems.

I know my personal feelings of antipathy towards royalty are particularly strong, and I don’t at all expect that others feel the same way. But I am continually surprised by the prevalence of “good” royalty in—particularly YA—fantasy literature. In this era, where many are focused on fighting for the equality of all, why do we continue to centralize in our writing a system that raises some above others merely by factors of birth and access? Does the presence of “good” monarchy in our stories mean we are longing for a monarchy to lead us?

I don’t think so.

Certainly I think it means we are (at least sometimes) fantasizing about good leaders in general. I think this is a common fantasy. Many “realist” pieces of fiction are indulging in that fantasy. (West Wing, anyone?) But why monarchy? What is it about that crown?

First, I think that we are accustomed to seeing monarchy in fantasy. I think we’ve seen so much of it that those are often the stories that grow in our heads. It is hard to get away from tropes we think of as normal. (Just like internalized misogyny.)

Second is an issue of scope. When someone without significant power has a piece of property stolen the story might be a mystery, a revenge story, or maybe a minor adventure. The theft may encompass their whole world but doesn’t expand to affect many others beyond their immediate circle. When that same thing happens to a monarch? Suddenly it becomes important to whole kingdoms, realms, worlds. Sometimes drama feels more meaningful when it has these expansive implications. It amps up the tension a hundredfold. If our heroes fail, the nation may fall or the world may end. (By the way, this is the same effect you get with a chosen-one story.)

Third is access. People with power have access that isn’t available to people without power. It’s why there are more millionaire superheroes than superheroes with student debt. Millionaires (and billionaires) can create the access they need to build freaking spaceships. And in the same vein, royalty often has easily substantiated access to armor and weapons, magical histories and relics. They do not have to worry about the family farm when they go on an adventure; they have retainers and servants for that.

But we know that your characters don’t need to have access, don’t need to be in control of the world they’re trying to save, to create an enthralling story. We have The Fifth Season, The Diviners, Texas Gothic. Stories where, while people may have the power to control earth or to commune with spirits, they don’t have power over other people. So why in high fantasy do we so often default to royalty?

We seem to love the story of the struggle to be a “good monarch.”

We have it in television (The Dragon Prince, She-Ra) and in comics (Sailor Moon), and in books (The Goblin Emperor, The Wrath and The Dawn, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). Kate Elliot has done it and Patricia C. Wrede has done it and literally everyone who has ever had a go at writing about King Arthur has done it. But could you really have a monarch that is truly “good”?

Personally, I believe that the answer is no. Not without completely redefining the term. Not without letting “good” include a vast amount of systemic inequality. You cannot remake a system for true parity without undoing the structure that maintains a person or persons at the top, above their subjects. Monarchs, as we define the term colloquially, are people who live in a palace, who have resources that others do not, who take on the burden of final decisions when their main claim to the position is their birth, not their study, and if from their study, so often due to access available to the rich that is absolutely inaccessible to the people they supposedly protect. Good monarchs often “do the hard thing for their people’s good.” It is, regardless of the monarch’s gender, the ultimate paternal figure who sacrifices his daughters to save them from an evil greater than death. When the monarch “has to do a thing” to keep their country safe, why do we not question the power structure?

I’ve been watching The Dragon Prince. Besides being beautifully drawn and well written, it is generally a comfortably, and sometimes forcefully, liberal show. It explicitly prioritizes understanding and community over the slaying of any great enemy. It is one of the most diverse fantasy stories ever animated for a major platform (no shock as it comes from the people who created Avatar and The Legend of Korra). But why, in the midst of all this progressive storyline, do we still have Ezran held up as an idyllic “good king” who might save them all? Because when you really come down to it, a predominant factor in conflicts like this is the rulers. It was not the villagers of Katolis and the other human kingdoms who went to war against Xadia; it was people who wanted consolidated power.

Am I saying that every fantasy monarch is evil? I have to admit that my urge to say yes is strong, but no. It’s fantasy, after all. In a fantasy land anything is possible, including a ruler who truly is the protector and champion of their people. I still adore your classical Arthur (against all common sense), because in so many of the stories he is just trying to make a better life for everyone. I still cry when Boromir dies in Aragorn’s arms (and okay, if I’m spoiling that I don’t know what to tell you). But I believe that the vision of a “good monarch” is more fantastic than the possibility of dragons. (How is Archaeopteryx not just a small dragon?)

I do not want to discount what representation in the “classic” stories can give us. When I started reading Audrey Coulthurst’s Of Fire and Stars, having a classic princess scenario that I knew promised a queer romance warmed my cranky, bitter heart. I can imagine that is only a small part of the feeling others may get finally seeing a princess of color, a genderqueer princess, a disabled princess, all who lead the charge of their own stories. That warmth, that self-recognition, and empowerment, they are important. I do not want to ask for those stories to disappear.

All I want is to ask why we still tell these stories. Why do we want to relive the “romance” of the Tudors, when we have other history to revere in the shape of women like Dolores Huerta and Sojourner Truth, stories where no one was born to anything, but rather made their own fate?

Stories where someone took back a little piece of the power that had been hoarded by those with all the wealth, not by becoming part of their system, but by helping to fundamentally change it.

Ursula K. Le Guin famously said, “We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable—so did the divine right of kings.” I feel this to the marrow of me. Why do we continue to write about power that has been consolidated under one person or family when we can fantasize about a world that destroys the oligarchy and offers a vision of a truer equality?

By the way? There’s more to that quote: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”


Emma WhitneyEmma Whitney is a math-brained aspiring accountant who would rather be thinking about dragons. She works as an administrative assistant but spends most of her time plotting to overthrow capitalism and making costumes for her niece (who is still a little too young to enjoy them). She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wonderful roommate, an exponentially growing yarn stash, and a robotic dinosaur named Dot.

 

Autism in Seven of Nine – Mette Ivie Harrison

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Mette Ivie Harrison!

Autism in Seven of Nine

When I throw my autism diagnosis into a social situation like a bomb, which is apparently the only way I know how to offer it, the most common response is “You can’t be autistic.” I’m too empathetic. I’m too successful. I’m too smart. I’m too, well, normal. But all of that is “masking.” If you were told for so many years that it’s mostly boys who are diagnosed with autism, it turns out this was only because girls weren’t being given attention. Just like women with heart attacks, the symptoms present differently, and that means that a lot of so-called “high-functioning” autistic women are now being diagnosed in our forties and fifties, after we figured out for ourselves why social interaction is so difficult, why we’re accused of being “cold” or “unemotional” or “masculine,” what meltdowns look like for us, and why we’re always apologizing for everything as we’ve been trained to do both as women and as autists.

Traits of autism include:

  • Lack of social reciprocity
  • Repetitious behavior
  • Intense focus on unusual subjects
  • Difficulty with change/rigidity
  • Unusual use of language
  • Blunt honesty
  • Lack of eye contact/facial expression/body language
  • A sense of apartness from the rest of society
  • Sensory issues
  • Difficulty with touch and other intimacy

When I first went in for an official diagnosis, the assessment from the clinician was incredibly painful to read over. Here is what she said of me:

[Mrs. Harrison] described a need for solitude as she can become overstimulated with sounds and smells. She takes earplugs with her everywhere and has always hated perfumes and common cleaning products. She also described a sensitivity to medication, for example, she has tried antidepressants, but experienced vomiting after taking them. She also cannot tolerate Novocain and becomes overly ill with any use of prescription pain medications. Additionally, Mrs. Harrison described a dislike for touch and noted that this can make relationships difficult as she feels she needs a concrete rule for the frequency of things like holding hands or hugging her husband.

Mrs. Harrison demonstrated the following concerns in her social affect:

  • Rapid speech with limited variation in pitch
  • Formal use of words and phrases
  • No response to examiner’s social leads
  • Limited or uncomfortable response to examiner’s comments
  • One-sided conversation
  • Inconsistent eye contact with difficulty modulating with other means of communication
  • Limited range of facial expressions
  • Reduced integration of gesture, gaze and facial expression
  • Reduced demonstration of shared enjoyment
  • Somewhat awkward social response
  • Reduced amount of reciprocal social communication

As I’ve tried to deal with what I now realize is society’s disgust with autism, I’ve recognized a lot of self-hatred in my autistic traits, despite the fact that they are, in fact, what has led to being as successful as I am.

If I didn’t have an intense focus and a lack of interest in social interaction, I wouldn’t have graduated with an MA at age 19 nor would I have gotten a perfect score on the GRE and gone to Princeton for a PhD, where I graduated at age 24. I wouldn’t have been able to manage a writing career with five children in which I’ve published fifteen books since 2002. I wouldn’t be an All-American triathlete.

Part of my self-healing has been going back to my childhood heroes, among them Spock from the original Star Trek series, who is, in my opinion, a hidden depiction of autism. Later in life, I found Seven of Nine, who, whatever the intention was, interacts in the world in a particularly autistic way. I love her characterization, even if I struggle with people who say that she is “learning to be human again.” No.

Seven is already human. Autistic people are human. I am human, and I’m on a quest to make the world accept autism in all its variety as fully and authentically human.

Go back and rewatch any episode with Seven of Nine from Voyager and this time think of someone you know who is autistic. Notice the similarities? Like Spock, Seven seems uncomfortable in her own body. She has an uprightness to her posture, a lack of facial expression other than a minimal curiosity. She doesn’t do Spock’s raised eyebrow, but something more like a tilt of her head. Look at the way she walks, as well. It isn’t very feminine, with much hip sway. She walks in a rather masculine way, which reminds me of the many times I’ve been told to act more feminine in one way or another. I do not understand gender and it seems Seven of Nine does not either.

Notice also how Jeri Ryan holds herself apart from the other actors on screen. When she’s in a scene, she tends to take it over. The camera focuses on her. But it’s rarely a warm, emotional moment. Occasionally, she has something like that with Captain Janeway, but even then it tends to be understated. There’s no hugging, weeping, or other obvious displays of emotion.

Watching her, I feel very much like I’m seeing myself on the screen. I have emotions, but they don’t appear in ways that other people recognize as emotional. I might shake slightly or start to sweat when I’m sad or angry. Other people would shout, and their faces would show emotion. It’s also true that Seven, like me, tends to misread or misunderstand people’s expressions or body language. It could be argued that this is because she’s never had a reason to learn to read that, because she’s connected to the Collective and gets direct information that way. But it’s also a kind of unconscious depiction of autism.

I was surprised at what I thought was an autistic response when Seven tasted food for the first time. I don’t like trying new food (I don’t like surprises in general), but when I do try new food, my first reaction is often a visceral one like Seven’s disgust. Then, perhaps, it moves to an analytical one, where I try to explain to myself how the food tastes. It’s also clear that Seven is struggling to be inside her own body, as I often feel inside of my body. Of course, there’s no way to be outside of her body, but Seven has long seen her body as a tool, a machine, and not as herself. It’s hard for her to stop thinking that way.

Whereas McCoy plays the part of the denigrating human who doubts the autist’s humanity in the original series, B’Elanna Torres, the half-human, half-Klingon engineer, plays that role in Voyager. She presses Seven to express remorse or guilt about her experiences killing others or assimilating them while she was part of the Borg. Seven says “no,” and B’Elanna says, “That’s it? Just no?” Seven asks, “What further answer do you require?” And then she says, “Guilt is irrelevant,” which incenses B’Elanna but from my perspective is just the reality. Guilt will not change what happened when she was a Borg.

Seven says of humans, “You are erratic. Conflicted. Disorganized. Every decision is debated, every action questioned, every individual entitled to their own small opinion. You lack harmony, cohesion, greatness.” I’m reminded of this every time I’ve tried to work with a committee. What Seven says is exactly how I feel about “talking” things over. It’s inefficient, a waste of time. Snap! Can we move to the part where we have a list I can focus on?

As for Seven’s sense of humor, it is also very autistic by my reading. Seven says, “I understand the concept of humor. It may not be apparent, but I am often amused by human behavior.” Seven is outside of normal society, which enables her to see things in some ways more clearly. She also sometimes makes us laugh at ourselves at her acute but quirky realizations, such as when she says, “Love bears a striking similarity to disease. A series of biochemical responses that trigger an emotional cascade impairing normal functioning.”

Seven struggles also with how to be “human.” It seems she wants a rulebook, something that I have often wished for. If you could just explain all the rules to me, then I could follow them. But the rules are always changing, and no one wants to admit they are what they really are, because they make no sense and they’re different for everyone. I love that in one of her first episodes, Seven says to Janeway, “I don’t understand the rules and procedure for this type of social occasion.” The audience laughs because there’s no book on this. Of course there isn’t! But in fact, most of my life has been taken up with trying to create just such a book. That’s what a lot of my writing is, my analysis of how humans interact.

I love the scene where Seven is trying to be social with the other crew members by simply asking them a list of questions, letting them have a very brief response, and then moving on to the next question. If the point of asking questions is to get answers, then she is doing it exactly right. But the point of asking questions in social situations is something else, something far more difficult to explain. There is also a fine irony in the Doctor, who is a holographic computer program and no more human than Seven is, being the one to try to explain humanity to her, because he is apart from it, as well. Being removed actually does make us acute observers. We’re the only ones who can explain the rules because they don’t make sense to us, either.

Being autistic is a wonderful variation in humanness, not something that makes us different or in need of teaching to be human.

Seven learns things, but is she ever less herself? I would argue not. And in the same way, I have no need for a “cure” for autism. I have always lived in the world in this way and I think it’s a good way. I think I have things to teach the rest of you about yourselves, and about me. I think all autists do.

 


Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison (she/her) has published numerous YA fantasies, including the award-winning and acclaimed Mira, Mirror, and The Princess and the Hound. In 2014, Harrison began to publish mysteries for adults with Mormon amateur sleuth Linda Wallheim in The Bishop’s Wife. She continues to publish the Linda Wallheim series while also publishing essays on Mormonism and the post-Mormon life on Huffington Post, Religious News Service and Medium. She currently works as fiction editor for The Exponent II. She was diagnosed with autism in January of 2017 and writes about autism.

 

Ren Iwamoto: A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Ren Iwamoto!

A Mirror, Distorted: A Brief Meditation on When Real-Life Events Inspire Speculative Fiction
By Ren Iwamoto

In 2012, the movie Chernobyl Diaries hit theatres. Its most distinctive feature is that, objectively, it’s terrible. Its director, Bradley Parker, had never directed a feature film before. It’s ninety minutes of mutant threats just out of sight (presumably because the movie was produced on a budget of only US$1 million), and a drab, emotionless script. Jesse McCartney is in it, but did not sing “Beautiful Soul” even once.

Chernobyl DiariesWhat can be said about Chernobyl Diaries is its awareness of Chernobyl in the western mass consciousness. Chernobyl hangs like a cloud of “what if” in North America: What if our own nuclear projects go terribly wrong, too? What would the fallout look like? What creatures would it create? Nuclear radiation is a deep source of both anxiety and narrative imagination in North America.

When Americans are exposed to radiation, they become heroes. When foreign bodies – the Russians, the Japanese – are exposed to radiation, they become monsters; true “foreign bodies.”

Bradley capitalizes on this unconscious assumption, and the uncertainty of what these un-American monsters might be or do, and does so well enough to generate a sharp disparity between critics’ and regular consumers’ reviews of the film, which were notably more favourable.

Voices From ChernobylFifteen years before Chernobyl Diaries, in 1997, the first edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster was published in Russian. Alexievich was a journalist living in Minsk under the Soviet Regime in Belarus at the time of the accident, and her efforts in recording the aftermath of Chernobyl, amongst other wonderful writings, including her first monograph, The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which lay just outside the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. Alexievich, in the opening pages of her novel, shares a transcript of a monologue given by the wife of one of the first responders at the plant:

He [my husband] started to change. Every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film…the colour of his face…his body…blue…red…grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. (Alexievich, 1997, 11-12)

We can clearly see here the transformative aspect which is so prevalent in nuclear fiction—the literal, grotesque shedding of the old self.

But the body is not a cocoon meant to be shed to give way to heroism, to something stronger and more complete. A body is a body; we belong in it and to it, and when it is stripped away, we die.

This story, which is only twenty pages long, moved me to tears three times. I put the book away for a while. But I could not stop thinking about it, and with my thinking, I recalled Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries. It seemed unbelievably ugly to me, that an American film maker could use Chernobyl as a springboard for a horror movie, and have not even the decency to make it a good horror movie. The young husband in the passage above died an ugly death – an objectively ugly, bodily death – and when he died remained nonetheless human. To seize upon the remainder, which is not the corpse, but the story of his life, and twist it into a B-list horror is a quiet and long-reaching appropriation difficult to see unless one thinks to look for it.

It would be extremely disingenuous, however, to say that all horror, sci-fi and fantasy “inspired” by real-life events are poorly done or made to capitalize on cultural trauma. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2018) engages directly with the horrors of the Sino-Japanese conflict during the twentieth century, particularly the infamous Nanking Massacre. The Poppy WarIn the Western mass consciousness, Japan has been rendered impotent. Its military, under the post-WWII constitution, can only exist for defensive purposes. Its global exports include franchises like Sanrio (the parent company of the ultra-cute Hello Kitty), anime, video games, and instant noodles. Stereotypes of meek, submissive women and quailing men run amok. But Japan committed some of the worst war crimes ever prosecuted, many of which are continually disputed by Japanese nationalists, who simultaneously wish to erase Imperial Japan’s atrocities and reinstate Japanese supremacy.

As a diasporic Japanese person, this knowledge was not readily available to me. Japan’s role on the global stage included: Pearl Harbour, the atomic bombings, and the North American concentration camps. I knew nothing about Nanking until I was in post-secondary, and took an introductory history class on the World Wars. Even then, Nanking was only mentioned in passing. The Poppy War has intrinsic value purely for bringing attention to the Nanking Massacre, which has dodged a deserved place next to the Holocaust in the western mass consciousness. (Why Chernobyl, widely accepted as a genuine accident, supersedes Nanking as an atrocity in the minds of many is an entire paper unto itself.)

That said, Kuang is herself a Chinese person. The Rape of NankingThe novel’s mere dedication – “This is for Iris,” referring to the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the first monograph published in English that truly exposed the details of the Nanking Massacre to a broader Western audience – implies a closeness to the subject matter, a personal entanglement I can confidently guess Bradley Parker lacked with the Chernobyl incident. It may be argued it is her prerogative to internalize, reshape, and share a version of the Nanking massacre and the less obvious, but nevertheless present and important broader strokes of the Sino-Japanese conflict, including human experimentation and forced prostitution. My love for this book stems, I think, from this: the villains from the Federation of Mugen are human beings. They are not Parker’s mutants, rendered physically monstrous and mindlessly malignant.

In being “inspired” by atrocity, Kuang has maintained the most crucial aspect of the Nanking Massacre, which is that it was perpetrated by humans. It was humans who slaughtered and raped and stole and then tried to pretend it never happened, and it would be a disservice to reality to absolve human beings of that.

Anyway.

There is an unending supply of fiction “inspired” by real events, but speculative fiction in the posttraumatic context holds a particular place in this category, made famous by such literary giants as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. The fantastic has long been a way writers can access atrocity without necessarily reliving it: Ghosts allow the dead to speak, allow forgotten and repressed memories to come to the surface. Beasts and monsters make convenient stand-ins for real-life oppressors, internal disorders of human empathy rendered bodily: fanged, clawed, winged and horned. A secondary-world brimming with magic obfuscates how closely faceless militaries mimic their real-life counterparts. South and Central America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and even the former Soviet Union have all produced novels engaging with the unreal as analogue to oppression, and in doing so legitimize speculative fiction as a genre capable of contending with and representing the real, and do so even more effectively than a genre like historical fiction. Historical fiction is, after all, a mirror, distorted, or perhaps a superimposition. In order to be “good,” the narrative must hold tightly to “the facts,” diverging only slightly, quietly and plausibly.

To be “inspired” by real-life events in speculative fiction is often to be in dialogue with conflicts both lesser and greater, and all the various manners in which humans are deficient in empathy and sagacity. That’s okay, I think. But some events feel like they belong to some people more than others – Chernobyl, Nanking, the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, residential schools, and on and on.

But is it fair to ask the colonized, oppressed, traumatized to rehash the details of their suffering over and over, just so western academics like me can be pleased with how knowledgeable and introspective we are? So we can look down on people who don’t know, because they were never taught, and say, “How can you believe colonialism is over? Racism is over?” Even in the speculative context, to recreate a trauma for consumption is a deeply unpleasant and deeply vulnerable position. I can only imagine myself in, for example, Kuang’s place: carefully demarcating the violence and dehumanization endured by the Chinese people and re-contextualizing it in a fantastic setting, a simultaneous reliving and distancing not everyone can or wishes to do themselves.

To tell a story is to be responsible for its effect, regardless of whether or not said effect was as intended. To tell a speculative story is the same, but with an added layer of nuance afforded by the fantastic.

When your trespassing American tourists are hunted by Russian mutants, whose real-life counterparts were good people who lived and died as human beings, what are you saying? When your villains mirror quite exactly the villains you know to exist in reality, despite the magic of the world around them, what are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?

What are you saying?


Ren IwamotoRen Iwamoto is a Japanese-Canadian grad student from the tenth dimension. Her areas of interest include studies in death, gender, memory, grotesquerie, and post-colonialism; she is in eternal search of the thesis topic that combines all of the above. Her poetry has been featured in multiple publications.

 

Gillian Chisom: Lost Girls and Open Doors: On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Gillian Chisom!

Lost Girls and Open Doors:
On Susan Pevensie and the Complex Legacy of the Portal Fantasy

By Gillian Chisom

“Each of us has a private Austen,” Karen Joy Fowler wrote in her novel The Jane Austen Book Club. Fowler’s evocative opening line captures something of the complicated afterlife of an author whose books have become many things to many people: the idea of a private Austen suggests not only the ways in which any author’s stories can become a repository for the hopes and fears of a particular reader, but also the speculation about the woman herself that Austen’s own somewhat enigmatic personal life inspires in Fowler’s characters. “Private,” a word with deep roots in traditional ideas about femininity, evokes the related concept of (feminine) secrets: those that Austen herself kept, those that her characters keep or fail to, those that her modern readers keep from themselves and each other. At the same time, the private Austens that Fowler’s book club members cherish become sources both of individual strength and of connection with the group: while none of the characters in The Jane Austen Book Club read exactly the same Austen, they are still able to bring their private versions into the space that they share, with transformative results.

For those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature, especially those of us who grew up reading fantasy literature as girls, I would propose my own version: each of us has a private Susan Pevensie.

While by no means universal, the experience of reading C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia as a child or young adult and feeling distressed or even betrayed by Susan’s fate is one that many of us share. In The Last Battle, we are told that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia, dismissing it as a game she played with her siblings as children, and has shifted her interest to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” While this brief explanation for Susan’s estrangement from Narnia allows for many possible interpretations, it seems clear enough that Susan falls from grace because she embraces the “wrong” version of adult femininity, though Lewis leaves us with few ideas of what the right version would look like. Given Lewis’s explicitly Christian worldview, one obvious interpretation is that Susan has lost her faith sometime between the end of Prince Caspian and the beginning of The Last Battle: in Narnia, in Aslan, perhaps even in her own memories. As a Christian child and young adult, that was certainly my own interpretation, though I found it difficult to believe that Susan actually forgot about Narnia: it made more sense to me that she simply convinced herself that it hadn’t been real as a means of self-protection. After all, not only had she and her siblings had to return to the real world after growing to adulthood in Narnia, but at the end of their second visit Aslan had told her that she would not be able to return, ever. It made sense to me that her grief might manifest in denial as an attempt to cope with the painful reality of losing an entire world, an entire life, that she and her siblings had claimed for themselves, even though I still believed that her response was misguided.

Other readers of Narnia have offered their own interpretations of Susan’s turn to “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Most famously, J.K. Rowling commented on Susan’s fate in an interview from 2005: “She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a problem with that.” Rowling’s comment implies that Lewis’s problem was an inability to see sex and religious devotion as anything other than contradictory, which seems plausible enough. The “nylons and lipstick” line certainly implies sex or at least sexuality, which in Lewis’s world are indistinguishable from adult femininity itself. Indeed, Lewis’s depictions of female characters, taken as a whole, imply that he could only understand adult women as either highly sexualized (and therefore frivolous at best and evil at worst), or sexless and therefore safe; in other words, the virgin/ whore dichotomy is alive and well in Narnia.

However, Susan’s characterization elsewhere in the series implies that she was in danger of losing faith even before she discovered lipstick.

In Prince Caspian, Susan spends much of the book refusing to believe that Lucy has seen Aslan, and has to be reprimanded by the Lion-god himself for “listening to fears.” The 2008 film interprets Susan’s attitude as caution borne of the fear of being yanked back to England again, an interpretation that adds some of the emotional realism that the book lacks. In The Horse and His Boy, which takes place during the adult Pevensies’ reign in Narnia, another character describes Susan as “more like an ordinary grown-up lady” in contrast to Lucy, who goes to war with her brothers while Susan stays home. In Prince Caspian, likewise, we learn that Susan excels at archery but is too gentle to fully enjoy competition.

Susan’s characterization up until The Last Battle suggests that the version of her who grew up in Narnia embraced a more traditional, and therefore acceptable, version of femininity. However, Lewis’s descriptions of the adult Susan also imply that even this purer version of female adulthood is virtuous only up to a point. Susan’s distaste for battle, in particular, contrasts unfavorably with “the Valiant” Lucy’s willingness to go to war for Narnia (even though Lucy’s gender relegates her to a role on the sidelines, healing the wounded); after all, no one wants to be “an ordinary grown-up lady.” Perhaps recognizing this, the 2008 film reinterpreted Susan as a warrior queen, a depiction that in one sense gave her more power, but in another simply reinforced Lewis’s negative attitude towards the idea of a woman choosing not to participate in war.

Susan’s ambivalence towards Narnia upon the Pevensies’ return in Prince Caspian also highlights a larger problem with traditional portal fantasy as a genre: its inability to grapple with the trauma that would likely result to the child protagonists of these stories from the experience of moving between worlds. However, a new generation of fantasy novelists has taken up these problems in their own versions of the portal fantasy, which come to the trope with an awareness of its inherent problems.

Laura Weymouth’s The Light Between Worlds responds directly to Lewis’s work, telling the story of two sisters, Evelyn and Philippa, who travelled from London to a magical land called The Woodlands as children during the Blitz and spent several years there. Evelyn, the younger sister, has sunk into an increasingly deep depression since their return; the book explores in painful detail how the loss of a magical world might affect the mental health of a child who had come to feel at home there. At the beginning of the book, the sisters have had a falling out, and Philippa is in college in the U.S., attempting to build a separate life for herself. When Evelyn disappears, Philippa returns to England to look for her, a task that forces her to reckon with their shared past.

Philippa eventually discovers that Evelyn has indeed found a door back to the Woodlands; in one sense, the story has a happy ending, as Evelyn is able to return to the world where she feels she belongs. However, Evelyn’s return comes at the price of permanent separation from her sister and the rest of their family. While Philippa accepts this separation as the only way forward for both of them, she also recognizes the loss: “My sister stands before me now, rooted in the soil of another world, and she’s always been more than I thought. She’s always been Evelyn of the Woodlands, whose heart called its way home. But I am plain Philippa Hapwell, and my heart belongs to no particular country. It belongs instead to all the people I’ve loved. A good part of it lies here and if I leave it behind, I will never be whole again. I’d be even less, though, if I stayed. More of me rests in the world to which I was born, and it’s time for me, too, to find my way home.” (P. 349)

Weymouth’s book explores the emotional and mental cost of having lived in two worlds, both for the sister who leaves for the magical land and for the sister who stays. The Light Between Worlds makes explicit what was only ever implicit in The Chronicles of Narnia: that choosing one world over another will always come with loss, and that that loss is even more painful when one does not have a choice. Weymouth’s counterpart to Aslan, a stag named Cervus, tells the Hapwell siblings that he will not call them back to the Woodlands, but at the end of the novel reveals that Evelyn has always had the choice to return if she chose, while Evelyn herself confesses that she only waited so long in the hope that she could adjust to being back for her family’s sake (p. 347).

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan tells the Pevensie siblings that “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a queen or king,” but the promise seems hollow when all of the Pevensies are eventually barred from returning; one can understand why Susan might have wanted to forget Narnia.

Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands also interrogates the portal fantasy, through the story of a thirteen-year-old named Elliot who’s recruited by a school on the other side of a wall in rural England that separates our world from the magical Borderlands. Brennan and Elliot are both self-aware about the tropes they’re interrogating, with poignant and often hilarious results. Elliot, for instance, is an avowed pacifist who works hard to propose diplomatic solutions to conflicts with various magical creatures, often meeting resistance from the militaristic Borderlands leaders. Brennan’s implied critique of the centrality of war to much of traditional fantasy literature, especially war fought by protagonists who are often children or teens, is incisive and refreshing. In Other Lands also grapples with the theme of choosing one world over the other, and the attendant loss: throughout the book, Elliot wrestles with the decision of whether to return to the Borderlands for good. When he does decide to go back for the last time, he confronts his neglectful father: “Do you know something else? If you’d loved me, I would have stayed,” said Elliot. “If you loved me, I would never have gone.” (P. 340)

Elliot’s confrontation with his father lays bare what traditional portal fantasies like Lewis’s often only hint at: that children would not need to go to magical worlds unless they were missing something in their own. Elliot’s choice to return to the Borderlands does not come without pain, but his only other option is stay in a place where he is unloved and unwanted. The portal world, while often becoming a source of loss in itself, can also function as compensation for children who have already experienced loss in their own world. While masquerading as simple escapism, portal fantasies have always at their core been stories about lost or neglected children looking for a way home. Weymouth and Brennan both highlight this theme by writing protagonists who are older and more self-aware then those of traditional portal fantasies, who understand the weight of their choices and the unfairness of having to make them in the first place.

In the end, Susan Pevensie does not only lose Narnia: in the final chapter of The Last Battle, we discover that the three other Pevensie siblings and their parents have all died in a train crash, and are now in the better, truer version of Narnia, Aslan’s country. What remains unspoken but implied at the end of the book is that Susan remains alive somewhere in the mundane world, alone, as a direct consequence of her choice not to accompany her siblings on their final mission.

My Susan Pevensie is a girl who lost her faith in Aslan but gained faith in herself, faith that allowed her to choose her own survival despite the loss that accompanied that choice.

As I have faced my own painful choices, most poignantly the choice to let go of my Christian identity in pursuit of healing and wholeness, Susan’s story has felt like the perfect metaphor for my own losses. As a child and young adult, I blamed Susan for her loss of faith; now, I blame C.S. Lewis for his failure to imagine a world where she never had to choose.

If the bittersweet heart of the portal fantasy is the loss that comes with choosing between worlds, then I find myself wondering: is it possible for us to imagine a world where our protagonists do not have to choose? In one sense, growing up inevitably involves making choices that come with loss; however, the choices that characters like Susan Pevensie must make in traditional portal fantasies often feel contrived, the product of a rigged system in which an all-powerful authority makes the rules. While books like The Light Between Worlds and In Other Lands acknowledge the pain and trauma of those losses, they still begin from the premise that it cannot be possible to live in both worlds. What would it look like, to tell a story where a girl like Susan Pevensie could move between worlds without sacrificing her full selfhood? What would it mean for us to imagine a version of the portal fantasy where the protagonists are able to find their way home and also remain whole? As portal fantasy continues to evolve, I hope that the next generation of writers will continue to find transformative answers to these questions.

 


Gillian Chisom

Gillian Chisom is a recovering academic and writer. A lifelong fantasy reader, over the last several years she has wrestled with the genre’s flaws and possibilities and become committed to writing fantastical stories which center queer voices. She was a Lambda Literary Fellow in Young Adult and Genre Fiction in 2013, and her work has appeared in The Toast, Global Comment, and Specs Journal. In her spare time, she likes to make her own clothes.

 

We are in need of some volunteer heroes!

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 9: September 2019

This month:

 

We are in need of some volunteer heroes!

Sirens runs on volunteer magic—and we need a bit more at the conference itself than we do the rest of the year. The best part is that you can help out while attending the Sirens programming you were planning on anyway, since our biggest need is for room monitors—the designated adult for the room. Typical duties involve helping presenters keep on time, closing the doors if the room gets full, and getting help for more involved troubleshooting. Shifts happen in the morning or afternoon, for a couple hours at a time.

For more details, please visit our volunteer page. If you’re a returning volunteer, you don’t need to fill out the form—just follow the directions in the email sent through the Google Group to claim a shift or two.

 

Instructions Emails

Keep a sharp eye on your inbox! In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending important instructions to attendees on how to meet the Sirens Shuttle, check in for the Sirens Studio and Sirens itself, and find the Sirens Supper! Presenters will also receive communications from the programming team.

If you’re riding the Sirens Shuttle and you have not yet provided us with your flight information, please write to (help at sirensconference.org) as soon as possible. We’ll track your progress toward Sirens and make sure that you haven’t run into any delays along the way.

 

Get to know your community: Joy Kim, Ren Iwamoto, and Gillian Chisom

This month we spoke to three more returning attendees to find out more about them!

 

What we read this month

From our volunteer led review squad, Lily Weitzman read and sings her praises of the epistolary novella, This is How You Lose the Time War co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Why does Ana Simo’s Heartland make Amy think of Raging Bull Pete? Read her review in this edition of Book Club to get that perspective and why Heartland seems to be more about head space on the blog and Goodreads.

Tere Mahoney raves about Mona Awad’s Bunny, a sharp-eyed critique of the world of academia and MFAs that you won’t want to miss.

 

Fall in Love with these New Autumn Books!

Once again, our team has done the legwork to give you more of what you crave. Click here to see all the beautiful new releases in fantasy by women and nonbinary authors.

Erynn’s Pick:

The Mythic Dream

Editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe who previously collaborated on two other amazing anthologies, The Starlit Wood, and Robots vs Fairies, have put together a collection from 18 star-studded authors of reimagined mythology. The Mythic Dream takes ancient tales from around the world and respins them to the present and future. Contributors include Amal El-Mohtar, Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, Alyssa Wong, and, among others, Sirens 2019 Guest of Honor, Rebecca Roanhorse!

 

Faye’s Pick:

Pet

From Akwaeke Emezi, the author that brought us Freshwater, comes much-lauded YA debut Pet. Set in a religious, so-called utopian world, a transgender girl named Jam inadvertently animates her mother’s painting… and out of it comes otherworldly Pet, a grotesque creature trained to hunt human monsters—monsters who should have been eradicated—like the one plaguing Jam’s best friend’s otherwise happy home. Emezi conceptualizes social ills like violence and drug abuse into actual monsters and the reviews promise that it lives up to the hype!

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Shaista Fenwick: Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Shaista Fenwick!

Fantasy Literature as Epistemological Frontier: Inclusion and Centering of Marginalized Voices as a Laboratory and Library of Experience
By Shaista Fenwick

Nonbinary understandings of sex, gender, and marginalized identities including gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, race and ability (among other flavors of difference) must be represented in fantasy literature in order for us to build an intersectional lens of sufficient complexity to imagine a future that has the possibility of approaching functionality for our real contemporary and future world. As Franz Boas held in the early days of American anthropology, psychology, not race or environment, was the core driver of culture and development. He also argued strenuously that differences in socioeconomic development were not indicative of cultural complexity and that cultures could not effectively be compared to each other in terms of relative development. This understanding is inherently oppositional to the idea of cultural hegemony and its related ideas of hegemonic masculinity as characterized by violence. The tool of fantasy literature is a natural home to explore complexities of nonbinary sex construction, gender, and intersectionality inclusive of historically marginalized cultures, specifically because it is unfettered by historic constructions of power. The power to reframe history outside traditional hegemonies is necessary in creating the language capable of imagining a future similarly unbound by limited understandings and perspectives of power. We cannot imagine a new way of thinking, feeling, and being without a place to explore that newness. Fantasy texts provide that space.

Sex is the biological construction and secondary sex characteristics of an individual, and provides a canvas for how gender is expressed in society. Sex and gender are two different things, but they inform one another. Sex and gender expression have a long history of being recognized as nonbinary in various cultures globally. The hijaras of India, the two-spirit people in indigenous Americans, and the Guevedoces in the Dominican Republic all occupy complex spaces between polar binary understandings of sex and gender. However, nonbinary understandings of sex have become controversial in the Euro-American context despite a long history of normalized nonbinary sexes in nonwestern and indigenous western cultures. The normalizing of western structures in fantasy and literature therefore reduces the complexity of lived gender and sex to an absurdly incomplete story. The dangers of a single story, as Chimimanda Adiche codified, is that the story becomes a vehicle for essentializing cultures and is never wholly complete. Single stories are rarely capable of containing the complexity of human experience and pluralism. On the rare occasion that they do, it takes a lifetime to tell and live them. Where fantastic literature enters the fray is through its flexibility of worldbuilding and norm-setting. The hegemonic forces of prescribed identity allow power to be designated as inherently restricted to specific social locations and siloed away from nonconforming social locations. This interlocking of siloed power and prescribed understandings of sex goes a long way to explaining the resistance to accepting sex nonbinaries as normal despite the well-documented failure of the dual-sex construct. Guevedoces (literally translating to “penis at twelve,” which is a form of androgen deprivation that leads to male sex-differentiation being delayed until after puberty) are accepted as unusual but still within the realms of normal development in the Dominican Republic, where a statistically significant percentage of children change sex at the secondary influx of hormonal development. Guevedoce kids who present as female prior to puberty develop a penis during puberty. Similar conditions have also been documented in Papua New Guinea. Pediatric urologists document that over one in a hundred babies present as intersex, and over one percent of those children are indeterminately sexed long after infancy. These numbers are hardly rare or inconclusive, and they have been obscured primarily as a reflex to the constructed need for siloed legitimacy of institutional power because those silos have been almost exclusively male, white, and cisgender. Any deviation allows power to leak, and that is dangerous for the status quo. The idea of a safe transgression of these norms is similarly dangerous.

Fantasy literature, although a product of culture, has more freedom to transgress than other media. The portrayals of science are, like other cultural products, couched in the language and trappings of power. The voice of science is couched in the power to change the face of the planet, our knowledge of the universe, and the long held understandings of what that power should look like. Art based on our understandings are themselves products of our culture, created to dig further into those constructions and nuances. Even when we reach for the sublime, we bear the burden of our years, and the softly repeated rivulets of history create channels through which our minds pass. DaVinci’s old bearded white male god dispensed knowledge and anima to someone cast in his image, just as the construction of that image is based on what we understand about power, inheritance, and what transferring power looks like. Fantasy itself is constructed on the differences between what we understand about how the world works and the way we believe it could work.

Fantasy not only plays on what we have understood and known to be real, but goes beyond the construction of our current world, delving purposely into the realm of the exoticized other and bringing it into the normalized now. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity for a reconceptualization of normal. Fantasy offers the opportunity for discovered histories to become forever-known histories. The worlds we find in fantasy offer power, reason, and the immanentization of what could always have been powerful in our own world. In so doing, fantasy offers the opportunity to try on futures and discover where we truly fit in the world that could be, and then migrates those possibilities into the world that is. Once they are there, those experiences aren’t exotic or other or different any longer. Instead of coding for otherness, the stories become touchstones that offer the opportunity for parallax shift. This shift in perspective from one social location to another isn’t a simple shift between what was and what is, but allows growth incorporating old understandings and blending them with new ones. One of the compelling ideas about sex is that it is reassignable against the interpretation and identity of an individual. That idea was based upon a study conducted by Dr. John Money, based on the Reimer twins. [Content warning: The linked article contains disturbing material.] That data was misreported, and the twins were unable to conform to sex reassignment contrary to their own sex identity as was reported, despite excessive and forceful compulsion by adults around them. The importance of non-sex binary thinking directly impacts survivability of adolescence, policy construction, and justice frameworks.

***

Gender is frequently thought of interchangeably with sex, despite being a wholly different construct. Gender is the expression of sex through the lens of culture, resulting in a vast array of practices and interpretations of what normalcy is for different sexes. What is “inherently male” changes vastly with location, class, security, and time. Even during western history, cultural markers like heel height, hair length, color choice have moved from being restricted to cismales to exclusive coding for cisfemales, to the point where transgression of those expressed gender norms is met with ‘corrective’ violence. Fantasy literature provides a mechanism of exploring different ways of being within one’s sex, no matter what it is, in a normalized context. The burden of history is particularly relevant here as women, nonbinary individuals, and nonconforming individuals of any sex have been consistently hamstrung and dehumanized in western colonial cultures. Fantasy allows for those differences to be explored, deconstructed, lauded, and overcome as limitations.

However, there is a strong dissonance between observed experience and shared experience. Cultural exchange where marginalized voices tell the story and are centered within it show an entirely different realm of established and possible histories to everyone who comes into contact with it. Joseph Campbell believed stories were at the heart of the human experience. Although those ideas of universal story are constructed in the very specific language of colonial classed masculinity, Campbell found archetypes, constructions, sequences of events that spoke to many people and revealed things we all hope for even across cultures. Although Campbell’s voice is limited, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women who Run with the Wolves” picks up on similar parallels. When voices speak with authenticity and equal respect, the shared experiences common to humanity speak with them and are similarly heard.

Including marginalized voices in not only the story, but also as storytellers provides all audiences the richness of human experience and histories of multiple interlocking cultures to draw from. Centering those voices in their narratives and in genre similarly offers a more nuanced view of their stories for all readers. There is a qualitative difference to the experience a person within their identity can relate versus that which a person witnessing an experience relates. Both perspectives may be equally valid, but the lived experience provides a textured and nuanced richness relating directly to the experience that someone witnessing it cannot absorb in the same way. The bystander or witness experiences can be equally rich, but not equally related to the central concerns. Proximity matters. And the idea of being “a voice for the voiceless is bullshit,” as Indigenous American activist, Sarah Adams-Cornell said. Don’t speak for others, but use proximity to audience to instead pass the mic to marginalized people so that they may effectively represent themselves, then use privilege of social location to legitimize their viewpoint. Fantasy literature is doing a much better job of centering marginalized voices in publishing, even among the larger houses, and especially at events where those voices and their perspectives are being normalized. Like feminism, a rising tide does tend to lift all boats. The increase in representation and legitimization of marginalized voices can help many intersections of marginalization. The stories told by Native and Indigenous cultures of two-spirit people and other nonbinaries intersects with Indian subcontinent stories of hijaras and the Guevedoces of the Dominican Republic to provide historical context for the holistic legitimization of nonbinary people in the West. We turn ultimately to the fantastic to tell stories that speak to real experiences we feel unsafe telling in their original frame. Just as Sherri Tepper and Margaret Atwood told their feminist dystopic stories using real experiences while setting them in speculative worlds, fantasy allows us to skip some of the steps, and move directly into the whole ‘what if’ of alternate constructions. Fantasy allows us to center the margins from inception, instead of in apocalypse, and on a scale as grand as is needed to encompass the whole.

Sex and gender nonbinary persons are far from the only marginalized identities experiencing erasure. The process of radical inclusion involves the deliberate seeking out and centering of those with differing experiences. Underrepresented differences include differences in nationality, ethnicity, ability, class, and security. These intersections also need to be represented by those who understand the nuance of lived experiences. Although authors follow story, even to discussing and representing experiences they have not personally had, the risk of inaccurate representation my result in essentializing and a story which is less-complete and complex than the actual experience. Stories that misrepresent experiences of marginalized populations not only detract from the appeal to authentic audiences, but also absorb market share and may depress business prospects for authentic voices in publication if they fail to connect with audiences. In any case where marginalized experiences are incorporated or represented in a cultural text (movies, books, plays), the use of beta readers is extremely helpful to critically engage with the narratives and help point out significant areas of concern. It is potentially a higher bar than is frequently expected, but the payoffs are equally powerful. Purposeful representation matters. Moreover, powerful, purposeful representation matters. And it matters even more when marginalized identities are centered, made powerful, and portrayed with integrity.

Centering marginalized populations, plural gender, and sex nonbinary voices forms the beginning of another way of reading, experiencing, and speculating about the world. There are many voices which look at the newer policies of inclusivity in publishing and entertainment media, feel a loss of their previously unquestioned ownership of primacy, and are compelled to say, “This is enough, haven’t we ceded enough ground already?” These outcries are normal and unsurprising, because the loss of privilege feels like oppression. They highlight that the work of plurality and inclusion will never be fully done because of the shifting ascendancies of political power within society, but it is critical for the ongoing improvement of our literary body of work, and for our development as reasoning social primates that we think and process incrementally better and deeper with each iteration of examination and improvement. As we work to mitigate erasure of voices of color, gender, sex, security or class marginalization, it seems inevitable that we will identify new areas of difference. Change, it seems, continues to be the only constant. Difference is not any person’s central and unyielding story. Instead, difference feels internally normal. It feels holistic. The problematizing of difference through the smaller normal lens is what turns difference into marginalization. Fantasy gives us the power to normalize a whole history, reframe identities, and form new normals. Ultimately, that is what we strive for as readers, writers, editors, and thinking humans. We do not want an end to difference, but to move to a social space where difference is respected as a needed additional perspective. The goal is not an end to questions, but the advent of an incrementally more interesting set of questions and a broader toolset and horizon from which to explore answers. Fantasy thrives in that unknown universe, allowing us to create the language we need to create alternate epistemologies, and import those frameworks home.


Shaista Fenwick was born in Trinidad and Tobago to two economists who spoke nine languages between them, and has been involved in both politics and education since she was a toddler. She serves on the board of the Future Society of Central Oklahoma and is hotel liaison for SoonerCon. She earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology, her master’s in professional writing, and is currently pursuing her PhD in instructional leadership and curriculum. She is a founding partner of Cobalt Prairie Consulting LLC in Norman, working to elect progressive, justice-oriented candidates to public office throughout Oklahoma. She is an author, spouse, educator, student and adoptive mom to many furbabies, plants and wayward students. Her favorite hobby in addition to consuming and making stories, gardening, cooking, singing, sewing, and kayaking…is sleeping.

 

Casey Blair: There is a problem when the only way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Casey Blair!

Women Are Already Powerful:
The Problem of Privileging Masculine Modes of Power in Fantasy

By Casey Blair

The fantasy genre continues to change and grow in response to how we—the writers, book purveyors, reviewers, educators, publishing professionals, and most importantly of all, the readers—push it. When we challenge standards and accepted limitations of what we want to read and what sells, we shift the landscape of stories available to us. We have the power to effect change, when enough of us across intersections care enough to exert that pressure. We see that power in effect—that it exists, and that we have a whole lot more work to do—in the way the publishing industry is putting out and celebrating more fantasy stories by and about marginalized people, and in particular, more stories about powerful women.

Women lead revolutions, women wield unprecedented magical powers, and women punch gods and monsters. Women helm stories of action and adventure, the kinds of stories boys have never had to search for to see themselves in. Especially in the young adult space, we are swimming in stories of women starring in fantasy worlds, and that is a victory worth celebrating.

But what I don’t see as much of, and I wish I saw more, are stories that center women where masculine modes of power aren’t upheld as the pinnacle, as the most important, as the only power worth aspiring to. Women should absolutely star in stories of fantasy combat and commanding revolutions. As Kameron Hurley has discussed, women, in all ages of history and all around the world, have always fought—and we deserve to see that in our fantasy. But women have exercised lots of other forms of power, too, and they’ve fought in many different ways, and we are still all too often erasing those ways from our stories, as well as our conversations about and acclaim for why all those ways matter.

Publishing won’t put out those stories in greater percentages or put more marketing dollars behind them if we don’t demand it of them, so I want to dive into why these stories that uplift feminine-coded forms of power are so important, and what it means that they’re comparatively rare. Which is not to say they don’t exist at all, or that we should slow down on writing stories about women stabbing the patriarchy with swords especially now that people of color and queer folk are beginning to be centered in more of them. Just that feminine-coded power, and its problematic erasure or devaluation, gets a lot less attention or celebration even though it can be just as inspiring and revolutionary.

I’m going to be talking about “coding feminine” or “masculine” as shorthand, so let me define that briefly, if broadly: These are the acts, the work, and the presentations we, in our western social framework, traditionally and stereotypically associate with the male or female gender. Big muscles and taking up space are coded masculine; daintiness and humility are coded feminine. Solving problems by punching is coded masculine; with teamwork, feminine.

So a fantasy that gives us an outgoing and belligerent heroine who loves sports, excels at punching, doesn’t care about dresses, and refuses to work with people—this is coding her power as masculine. And that’s not a bad thing! Women characters wielding masculine-coded power challenge the gender stereotypes that only men are able to succeed with that kind of power, the swords and the aggression and the alone-ness. Women absolutely can too, and I love these stories. The problem is with trends, historical and current.

For decades, we’ve read troves of fantasy focusing on men wielding masculine-coded power and generally not even noticing feminine-coded power exists, or if it does devaluing it or even making it evil. And in our current era, while that kind of fantasy doesn’t eclipse all the other fantastic work out there, by and large most fantasy stories starring women cast them in roles wielding masculine-coded power. These women are dueling to the death. They’re breaking communities with revolutions. They’re throwing away their dresses and donning pants. And while none of those are problems in and of themselves, there is a problem when over and over feminine modes of power are consistently abandoned, trashed, buried, and erased.

There is a problem when the only, or even the primary, way we can imagine women in stories focusing on action and adventure is to make them reject feminine modes of power. There’s a problem when the vast majority of women our stories present as heroes, as powerful in their own right, are coded masculine. There is a problem when you have a whole lot of women in your story, and all the Aryas, the warrior women, are narratively favored, where the Sansas, who try to follow traditional paths for women, have the most horrifying storylines. Not all the heroes of any gender should have to wield masculine-coded power to be at the center of a story—whether or not the story focuses on action and adventure.

The problem, to be clear, is that we’re tacitly upholding toxic masculinity by not challenging the underlying assumption that women who don’t behave in traditionally masculine ways are not just as powerful and as capable and deserving of adventures, in our stories and in our reality. When the dominant trend in our stories is to privilege masculine modes of power over feminine, and those are the stories we dominantly celebrate, that’s the message we send, absorb, and perpetuate.

I don’t just want to see women in my fantasy books who decide they should be able to wear pants, too, and work to make that happen. I want to see women and people of all genders who wear dresses proudly in a pants-dominated world and are treated with just as much respect without working multiple times as hard for it.

Or, to put it another way: I don’t want women to have to reject dresses to be taken as seriously as the people who wear pants. Women shouldn’t have to reject femininity to be powerful, and that is just as important in our fantasy as it is in our reality.

Women are already powerful.

***

Stories are both mirror and window. They help us figure out who we are and who we can be. They help us cope with our reality and imagine other ways of being.

So when we see that our stories dominantly privilege masculine-coded modes of power—of physical strength, noncooperation, aggression—it matters. The prevalence of this trend sends a clear and awful message that traditionally feminine modes of power aren’t, in fact, worthwhile. That women who want to wear dresses and talk problems out instead of stabbing them in their fronts are weak, and passive, and can’t go on adventures. I reject wholeheartedly the premise that to have power in our stories, which reflect the truth of our reality and offer possible escapes, we have to reject femininity, too.

We do ourselves a disservice upholding traditionally masculine roles as modes of power for women without also modeling femininity as strength worth aspiring to—by which I mean not inherently evil—by not also modeling that men don’t have to be brilliant warriors and ruthless princes to be heroes or to be desirable as heroes. We can’t unravel toxic masculinity if we don’t value other kinds of power for all genders, and worse, right now our stories are helping uphold it by dominantly privileging traditionally masculine modes of power for everyone.

And we can’t value other kinds of power when we erase and devalue them from our stories.

***

What other kinds of power do I mean? What does this look like? Happily, examples do exist in fantasy, even if they’re not the majority, so let’s look at some specifics.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit subverts gender role expectations across the board. Our protagonist Balsa is a professional fighter not because she has to be, but because she chooses to be. She’s not the only female character, either: The Second Empress uses her political power, which functions differently than the Emperor’s, to thwart him and save her son; for contrast the oldest and most powerful shaman is a woman who is explicitly called ugly, making it clear her power is not connected to beauty or any kind of feminine wiles.

On another side, our primary healer character, who may or may not be a love interest, is a man, not a woman. And the character who is forced to give birth to a magical egg is a prince, not a princess. Balsa is our protagonist, but in this book she’s also just the bodyguard: The prince must do the work of bearing the egg, and Balsa couldn’t protect him without the work of the healer. With this framing, Uehashi makes it clear both that avenues for different kinds of women to exercise power exist and, importantly, that the traditionally coded feminine roles are valuable work, while simultaneously centering a woman.

So this is the first way to successfully navigate giving us satisfying stories of action and adventure while avoiding the problem of privileging masculine modes of power for women in fantasy: Center the women with masculine-coded power but still uplift feminine-coded power by granting it to leading male characters and making it integral to the resolution of the plot. Feminine-coded power doesn’t have to be the sole province of women, nor should it be, lest it function as a way to pressure women into exerting only feminine power, which is its own trap. But including feminine-coded power as a desirable mode for other genders is one way to keep from restricting valuation of that power.

Stories can apply this kind of reversal—subverting gender expectations for centered women while also valuing feminine-coded power—in a lot of ways. In Robyn Bennis’s The Guns Above, our heroine is an airship captain who is very good at soldiering, while the male dandy assigned to spy on her is the one who is sensitive to people’s emotional needs. The story requires both their skillsets to get them out of trouble. In C.L. Polk’s Witchmark, our gay male hero is a healer, and it’s his sister, mindlessly following in the steps of her father’s masculine-coded ruthless heartlessness, that is the villain. In this case, victory requires a complete rejection of the dominant power system that subjugates others.

Trail of Lightning

In Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, our protagonist Maggie Hoskie is skilled and supernaturally talented at killing, while Kai Arviso is a medicine man still coming into his full power who needs Maggie to protect him—and he is also a love interest who is not preternaturally gifted at combat, and (BRIEF SPOILER) the one Maggie chooses (END SPOILER). Trail of Lightning is also in many ways a refutation of this kind of gender coding: others use the fact that Maggie Hoskie is a woman in possession of killing powers at all to make her out to be a monster, and unnatural, which she at turns embraces or rejects.

In Laini Taylor’s Dreamdark series, she sets up a similar dynamic in Magpie Windwitch, who is a champion because she’s the only faerie who can weave the tapestry of the world, but a hero not because of what she can do with magic or in battle, but because she’s committed to acting. And also in Talon Rathersting, who learns how to knit magic—so he can fly, and so he can keep his friend from being lost. Laini Taylor makes fiber arts and keeping people together, two skills traditionally associated with women, valuable in the world at large as well as for men specifically.

Sandry

In these stories, we get to have it all: action and adventure without privileging toxic masculinity. Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series shows us another way to do this with a group of four main characters: Sandry, a noblewoman whose magic is tied not just to fiber arts, but specifically to the perceived lower-class craft of weaving which includes weaving people together; Daja, who hails from a merchant clan—which is not coded as a masculine endeavor—and whose powers are tied to blacksmithing, which is; Tris, whose magic is fantastically destructive—which the narrative paints as problematic, not desirable—and who gets to be an explicitly angry, emotional woman without that making her less worthy or powerful; and Briar, our one boy, whose magic is tied to plants and gardening, which we traditionally associate with women. Every protagonist, taken individually and as part of a collective, challenges our understanding of gender-coded modes of power.

***

All these examples so far largely feature gender flipping, so before I go any further we have to take a minute to talk about matriarchies in fantasy, when it’s not just individual characters challenging gender roles but the entire fantasy society. Some fantasy matriarchies do a simple, blunt gender role swapping, having women exercise masculine-coded power and devaluing or subjugating feminine-coded power in men. Others take a more nuanced approach and bake the analysis into text with more subtlety.

Wings of Fire

We can talk about the outrageously popular middle grade Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, which follows a group of dragonets who think they’ve been chosen to save the world, and each book of the initial quintet focuses on one of them. Sometimes the female dragons are the strongest or best fighters, and sometimes they aren’t, but in this matriarchal world they are always assumed to be the natural leaders. The series evaluates the flaws of masculine-coded antagonistic, heartless, and physical strength-based leadership modes on the page, and ultimately, amidst all the combat and bloodshed and assumptions of their necessity, it’s the tiny female dragonet who wants everyone to work together who is able to figure out how to end the decades-long dragon war.

We can talk about In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan and its misandrist elves, how the narrative hilariously and blatantly critiques traditional patriarchal arguments by flipping them on their head. We can also talk about how our bisexual male hero navigates through and around his narrow-sighted, war-focused comrades with a combination of blithely ignoring rules, which is traditionally a men-only prerogative, but also a commitment to diplomacy, nonviolence, and bringing people together, which is associated with women.

We can also talk about Martha Wells’s Raksura series and its, as the author describes them on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea,” “matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people.” Her world-building is significantly more complex than a simple gender flip, problematizing and elevating different social roles, how they interact with gender coding, and what those consequences look like on both a societal and narrative level.

***

“This is all well and good,” you may be thinking, “but these are mostly women in masculine modes of power even if those modes aren’t privileged above feminine. Don’t you have examples of women centered and exercising valued feminine-coded power?” I do indeed, but not as many as I want.

Gender flipping and subversion is only one way to navigate the problem of privileging masculine modes of power. Some of the authors I cited above in fact operate in multiple modes: Tamora Pierce, for instance, gives us Alanna, who is not only a warrior but also a healer, and the latter is just as critical to her character even if people tend to focus on the swords. Nahoko Uehashi’s The Beast Player gives us Elin, who wants nothing more than to care for magical creatures and stay out of world politics and battles. Authors can successfully center women exercising feminine-coded power in fantasy adventures in so many ways, it’s infuriating to me how few I can point to and how little I hear this highlighted.

Torn

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s start with Rowenna Miller’s Torn, which values feminine-coded work from top to bottom. In this book, our heroine is a professional seamstress who stitches charms into dresses. It’s protective work and homemaking in fiber arts in particular, disciplines traditionally associated with women. Moreover, she’s also a business owner and pillar in her community, sharing her knowledge and uplifting other women in feminine-coded skills when she can. When men discover just how powerful her ability can be, they try to control her and twist her ability, and she masters her power to subvert their violent goals without having to follow their toxic paths to power.

The thread of community-building leads me to modes of leadership that code feminine rather than masculine, based less on dominance than on coming together, and for this reason two books I will tell everyone to read forever are Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore and The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette writing as Katherine Addison. I group them together in this context because both are fundamentally about whether it is possible—and how—to rule, to exercise power inherited from a deeply toxic foundation and history, with compassion. In Bitterblue, our heroine learns how to bring people together to begin healing not by ignoring the past or forcing people to expose their pain, but by creating a space where it is safe to do so. The Goblin Emperor codes Maia’s power feminine, is clear that he has been and is punished for it, and nevertheless, little by little, inexorably, he learns how to use his power to build bridges, literally and figuratively. He learns how to accept the institutionalized and personalized traumas the people he wants to lift up are starting from, and he surrounds himself with women who are likewise committed to lifting each other up. Both books analyze the failures of privileging masculine modes of power and actively work to uplift feminine modes.

Bitterblue The Goblin Emperor

Mirage by Somaiya Daud, a Moroccan-inspired space fantasy, not only centers compassion, it includes an incredible variety of women in positions of power: princesses and fighters, old and young, from the ruling culture and from the oppressed. That variety isn’t limited to living women, either: Even in the world-building, revered cultural heroes are women, and they are both warriors and poets, providing acknowledged, valued paths for women to wield different kinds of power. In this book, our heroine Amani doesn’t lead a revolution. Her true power is borne out of her ability to understand and communicate with different groups of people, to weave the foundations of peace when no one else is even looking for it. And she still gets action, adventure, and romance out of it.

Listening, sharing, adapting, negotiating, and leveraging networks—all of these traditionally feminine-coded skills are incredibly powerful. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith, which is at once epic fantasy, military fantasy, and fantasy of manners, is a masterful example of the many different kinds of power women can wield, or are forced to wield, when dealing with patriarchal frameworks. There are women for whom beauty is a curse or a weapon or both; there are women who fight in quiet ways, smiling ways, or stabbing ways. There are women who take the lessons of power from one culture and then have to apply them or learn new ways in different cultures. There are women who form networks to work together to survive patriarchal systems as we simultaneously watch those systems, and the men who internalize their ideals, rot from the inside.

Empire of Sand

Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand is one of my latest favorite examples of the different kinds of feminine-coded power women can wield in fantasy, one reason being she gives us multiple modes of feminine-coded power exercised at the same time, because why choose? In this book with its setting inspired by Mughal India, Tasha Suri gives us a window into what power looks like for women at court: those on the top, and those distinctly not, and how it functions differently within the sphere of other women and also more broadly—we see the power of controlling who sees women’s bodies, and we see women both lifted up and undercut by other women. We also see women’s power exercised outside the court: We see women leading nomadic communities, managing logistics, information, strategy, and social bonds. We see women in dangerous magical cults, as the enforcers and as the ones who create community bonds there, too.

More than that, we see our heroine Mehr with her complicated heritage navigate through these different spheres, finding her strength when people are always trying to control her, which is a narrative that rings deeply true to the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world: survival and agency in the face of oppression. Mehr’s magical power, and that of her love interest, is borne out of dance, which is coded feminine—and it is in learning to exercise her power as a woman inside and outside these systems that she succeeds: she learns how to embrace her power but refuses to burn the world with it.

The Gilded Wolves

And last but the opposite of least is Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves, firstly because one of the best ways to accomplish everything I’m talking about here is just by having multiple important characters, and specifically multiple important women characters. Going back to gender subversion, even just among our group of main characters, there are boys who want nothing to do with violence and boys whose talents lie in communicating with others, which are feminine coded skills, and one boy who wants to rise to the top no matter what in traditionally masculine-coded fashion, which the narrative paints as tragic and flawed. Then there’s Zofia, an autistic Jewish girl who has difficulty understanding people, but she’s brilliant at mathematics, engineering, and explosions. And what more can you want in a heroine, right?

The answer to that is Laila, who doesn’t subvert gender roles at all except in the expectation of their comparative weakness, because she embraces her feminine coding powerfully. Her power is so fundamentally, fantastically coded feminine. Laila may not be human but understands people perfectly: her emotional intelligence is practically psychic, and she always knows what someone needs, whether it’s words or cake. She’s not just a genius at emotional management, but at baking, dancing, and consciously wielding her beauty and sensuality. Because that’s the critical second part of how The Gilded Wolves succeeds in navigating the problem of privileging masculine modes of power: it’s not just a matter of having multiple kinds of men and women; it’s how the narrative depicts that power. Laila, with her strong coding as feminine, is undeniably, unabashedly powerful, not only to the reader but within the narrative of the story, and the fact of her fictional existence is inspiring.

Domestic arts and crafts, logistical organization, physical appearance, healing, protection, compassion, community-building. Traditionally feminine-coded modes of power are power. And I think it’s worth pointing out, too, that every single book I’ve cited here features action and adventure while uplifting feminine-coded forms of power. Every. Single. One.

Power, adventure, and heroism for women do not have to come at the cost of feminine coding, because they are not mutually exclusive, and we need our stories to stop perpetuating that erasure and devaluation.

***

So again, I’m not saying that books that center feminine-coded power as worthy don’t exist; they clearly do. Nor am I saying that now that we have a lot of stories about women—and, let’s be clear, a lot of stories particularly about cisgendered, heterosexual white women—exercising masculine-coded modes of power that we don’t need or want more of them.

What I want, and what we need and deserve as a society full of women who have always exercised a wide variety of power, is a fuller variety of stories and appreciation of that diversity. We can read, value, and push for more than one kind of story at the same time. I don’t just want to be able to point these stories out as exceptions to the trend, for the work they’re doing to be so rare or rarely noticed that it merits highlighting. Because I don’t just want stories that say women can wield a sword as well as a man can; I want stories that say also that sword-wielding may not be the best way to resolve our problems. Women can lead just as powerfully in the ways they always have—and that includes fighting the way men are usually credited with, but it also includes ways we erase. We’ll never value feminine power if we don’t write it into our stories as valuable, and valuable to everyone.

The first part of that task is on all of us: It’s being aware of the messages we’re sending, whether we’re creating stories or promoting them, what we’re absorbing as readers and what we’re choosing to read, what those implications mean when we follow the logic all the way down, and what it means for these stories to be the exception rather than the norm in mainstream fantasy. I hope if nothing else this essay provides some tools to think about the ways we tend to privilege masculine-coded power in fantasy going forward and the many incredible other ways we can set up our stories, and demand from our stories, if we choose to.

Because it’s not much of a choice to wear pants or wield a sword if the alternative is passivity, victimhood, villainy, or the inability to be the star a fantasy adventure centers around. I want more worlds that understand that isn’t the only option. I want more stories that are able to see other ways, and value them, and model them for all of us—not just as a mirror to hold up to nature, but also as a door, to escape into what we all can be. And I hope that’s a direction where we can encourage the fantasy genre to grow.


Casey Blair

Casey Blair is an indie bookseller who writes speculative fiction novels for adults and teens, and her weekly serial fantasy novel Tea Princess Chronicles is available online for free. She is a graduate of Vassar College and of the Viable Paradise residential science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. After teaching English in rural Japan for two years, she relocated to the Seattle area. She is prone to spontaneous dancing, exploring ancient cities around the world, wandering and adventuring through forests, spoiling cats terribly, and drinking inordinate amounts of tea late into the night.

 

This month’s Sirens Essays tackle the complexity of female relationships

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 7: July 2019

This month:

 

Programming Announcements

We are thrilled to announce the titles of this year’s accepted programming!

Click on the links to see what’s in store: Papers and Lectures, Panels, Roundtables, Workshops, Afternoon Classes, and Combination Presentations.

If you would like to support Sirens, our presenters, and our programming, we invite you to sponsor a program at $35 per presentation. The deadline is August 15 for us to include your name in this year’s program book with our profuse thanks!

 

Nia Davenport, A Master on Many Missions

We’re in the full swing of summer break, which means teacher and author Nia Davenport has swapped out her red grading pens and lab equipment for character profiles and plot building. We chatted with her this month as part of our get to know your Sirens Studio faculty series. Read the interview here to find out more about how she manages multiple disciplines in her work and demands the same diversity from her fiction. Fittingly, Nia will be leading a workshop “The Danger of the Single Narrative” at the Studio this fall.

 

New Sirens Essays Tackle Female Relationships

Introduced last month, our Essay series is a welcome breeze of fresh discourse from our community to keep you cool through the summer while we patiently wait for October:

 

Your Sirens Community

If you’ve been following Amy’s reading for even a little while then you probably know she’s not a big fan of science fiction. But why? This month, Amy spells out her problems with the genre in general and how Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories made it to the super elite pile of Amy-approved sci-fi on the blog and Goodreads.

Our review squad has been reading—and loving—illustrated texts!

Lani Goto offers up a fantastic list of comic books with nary a spandex suit or punch in sight, including collective volumes of webcomics, standalone graphic novels, and a D&D-inspired fantasy.

Bethany Powell analyzes the first volume of Yoshiki Nakamura’s Skip Beat series, a shojo manga starring a girl with multiple jobs struggling to make it in showbiz, and happens to have grudge-demon activated powers.

 

Books and Breakfast: Gender and Sexuality

Continuing our Books and Breakfast breakdown series, July focused on the two titles selected for bringing issues of gender and sexuality to the morning discussion tables: April Daniels’s Dreadnought and K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter. Find out why we picked them, and why you should add them to your reading list here.

 

Hot-Hot-Hot New Books for July

Once again, we’ve rounded up a beautiful array of new titles in fantasy by women and nonbinary authors. Click here to look them over!

Erynn’s Pick:

House of Whispers

Though the issues of House of Whispers by former Sirens guest Nalo Hopkinson started coming out last fall, some people (me) may prefer to stock their shelves with a sleek volume edition. Part of a line of four stories chosen by Neil Gaiman to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his original Sandman Comics, House of Whispers is the sort of hybridized Afro-diasporan mythology that one expects from Nalo but set in the Sandman Universe. The tale starts when a Yoruba goddess, Erzulie, finds her otherworldly ship has veered off course and crashed into the Dreaming between the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets. Nalo’s goddess needs to find her way home while simultaneously solving a strange soul sickness breaking out among her people in the mortal realm.

 

Faye’s Pick:

Gods of Jade and Shadow

I have been impressed with Mexican Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia since reading her story collection This Strange Way of Dying from a years-ago Sirens Reading Challenge, and my reaction to hearing the premise of Gods of Jade and Shadow was instant obsession. Set during the Jazz Age in Mexico, it stars Casiopea, who opens a box while cleaning her wealthy grandfather’s house and accidentally frees the Mayan god of death. With a humble protagonist, a bargain with a god, and an odyssey that’ll take Casiopea from the Yucatan to Mexico City, this is bound to be an amazing blend of fantasy, fairytale, and Mexican folklore.

 

This newsletter is brought to you by:

Erynn Moss + Faye Bi


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

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