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Sirens Essay: Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 V. S. Holmes!

Moral Disability: How Villainy Looks When You’re the Monster
by V. S. Holmes

Our depiction of disfigurement and disability in villains—those in speculative works, particularly—taints our perception of disabled people in our own world with a dangerous morality. All of us know the ache of being unable to find yourself in a book and the annoyance when a character is just the lovechild of stereotypes and bigotry. So much of Sirens focuses on the importance and beauty in seeing ourselves—our strengths, our flaws, our lives—in speculative fiction. But when I search for a character like me, I find Captain Hook’s missing hand. I find Viren’s magical staff. I find villains.

Dr. Isabel Maru

We know the disabled villain trope well, from obvious monsters to the more human. Even works built on a platform of progressive ideals frequently fall short with ableism: Dr. Isabel Maru’s scars in the 2017 Wonder Woman film broke my heart (as did Steve Trevor’s cheap quip that Diana was blind). Sometimes it’s an offhand way to telegraph “This one’s the bad guy!” But when the character’s disability or disfigurement is part of their backstory, we often learn that their evil stems from the isolation and abuse they received because of their disability. Regardless of our fascination with darkness, if we look beyond the scarred, limping package of most classic villains, we see honest and understandable emotions.

Excluded, angry, desperate, misunderstood: We all have felt these at some juncture, and they are emotions disabled people carry with us every day. Frankly, they’re justified. So why are creators—including speculative creators—intent on making the disfigured and disabled evil?

Disability is feared because it is one of the few marginalizations that’s “catching.” As much as we want to believe we’re invincible, we aren’t. I’m often asked what happened to me when I use my cane or if I have a heart monitor strapped to me. Accidents happen. Genetics happen. I agree—finding out my body was unable to do what it used to was scary. Returning to the example of the Wonder Woman canon: Maru’s inception as a character was based on her terror that she might figuratively lose face, a fear turned literal in her modern film debut.

No one wants something traumatic and life-altering to happen to themselves or their families, even in a world as advanced as ours can be—have you seen the bionics from Hero Arm? Instead, we retreat to the rigid idea that people deserve what happens to them. Car accident leave you paralyzed? Maybe you shouldn’t have reached down to change the playlist. Connective tissue breaking down? Maybe you should have been better about taking those vitamins.

If the characters who limp, whose faces are scarred from birth or accident deserved it, then in turn, if you become disabled, you are also Bad.

The underbelly of these thoughts births horrific legislation and murder under the label of mercy. Husbands murder wives with dementia; parents murder children with development disabilities. These tragedies are termed “acts of love” when really it’s just fear and annoyance at a perceived burden.

The pervasive fear of illness and disfigurement in our world is seen so much more now as illness arrives on our doorsteps. Many think that, just by doing the right thing, they’ll be spared. As long as I follow the rules, I’ll be OK. As long as everyone likes me, I’ll be fine. As long as I do my yoga and take my vitamins and wear my mask, I won’t fall ill because, after all, I’m Good. Right? RIGHT?

It doesn’t work that way.

When we encounter disabled antagonists who have a redemption arc, the resolution is a magical cure—rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind, or their limb is restored, or the anxiety stops its incessant yammering. By this logic, disabled people must be Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would be cured by now.

Zuko

A good subversion of this was Katarra offering to heal Zuko’s burn scar in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The action is a classic symbol of his redemption, that he is accepted and loved by his new community, so now he can be Whole. However, the healing is interrupted and Zuko lives the rest of his life scarred—the rest of his fulfilling, long, and happy life, may I add.

This morality in our world is often mirrored in SFF worlds to show how terrible the world is, to show how tragic the history of war and magic and creatures has been. Where we do see disability addressed it is often on wealthy core planets that offer access to incredible therapies and technology or magic that all but erases our disability as nothing more than a fun worldbuilding quirk. Like in our own world, these treatments are gatekept by wealth. Additionally, we see this in heroes whose disability is the price for power, making it clear that no matter the world, being disabled is a negative.

Writing with this framework—which, like any privilege, isn’t easy to see and hard to disassemble—makes it tempting to cure the suffering and sickness in our speculative works.

In magical kingdoms and high-tech space stations, it’s easy to cleanse our world of hardship. Of scars. Of sickness.

I don’t want to be Clorox-wiped from the countertop or relegated to the corners as humans love to do with monsters. Disability cannot be erased. Many fall back on the reasoning that writing diverse characters isn’t realistic, but at Sirens we know that “reality” is based on a misunderstood, sanitized, and white-washed account of history—besides, what about the dragons? The realism argument does not hold up with disability, either. Gene therapy doesn’t prevent physical accidents. Nanobots and magical cures can’t stop evolution from testing countless new mutations—life will find a way, right? And honestly, not all disabled or disfigured people want a cure. In our world, seeking cures is often rooted less in our comfort than in freeing abled people of the “effort” of accommodating us.

Disability arcs grow complicated when we turn back to the villain’s past. There is no denying that enduring terrible things changes the way we view our world and the other people in it. Disability complicates our relationships with our bodies, our minds, and our entire sense of self. I’m in pain most days. It makes me short-tempered at the best of times. So, should I smile and make a go at world domination? I have my bad days like anyone else, but fascism seems a bit far.

Luckily for all of us readers and writers, cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility: A character doesn’t need to be able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid. Accessibility adds an incredible layer of worldbuilding from which to draw inspiration—both for worlds we can visit in our imaginations and those we can build from our own.

Plus, if you’re looking for a “wow” factor, changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one person’s pesky meat-suit!

At its core, fantasy is about imagination, about pushing the boundaries of society and humanity on page and on screen. When building these worlds, it is easier to look backward at where we’ve been—and not just for our obstacles, but for our ideals. In small ways, we’re dismantling this framework: In 2018, the British Film Institute announced that they were banning disfigured villains to “remove the stigma,” though I’ve seen little mention of it since. If nothing else perhaps we’ll avoid a few poorly written origin stories that no one asked for, right?

I’d much rather imagine an accessible world where we can attend our places of worship, fan conventions, and job interviews. One where we don’t endure the embarrassment of being carried upstairs when there’s no lift. A world where someone will meet our eyes and we know they are looking at us, not the scar on our face, or the unique proportions of our body.

Casting a morality judgment on who becomes disabled or disfigured inherently changes the way disabled people navigate our world, often at the highest cost. Whether we are creatives or readers or activists, the worlds we imagine shape our perception of our own, and its people. Let’s envision a world not where people like me don’t exist, but where it’s easier for us to.


V.S. HolmesV. S. Holmes is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies. When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds. For more information about V, please visit their website or their Twitter.

Sirens Essay: Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 Ausma Zehanat Khan! This essay is based on the keynote address that she presented at Sirens in 2019.

Feminism, Patriarchy and Faith in The Khorasan Archives

by Ausma Zehanat Khan

When I first conceived of writing the Khorasan Archives, my four-book fantasy series set along parts of the Silk Road, Central Asia, and the Middle East, I was consumed by a set of questions: What was the place of women within the Islamic tradition? Why did we appear so infrequently in the annals of Islamic history, why had our names and contributions been lost to time, and how did our erasure from our own history affect our current status in Muslim societies and communities?

I was particularly interested in the communities I came from as a woman of Pakistani Pashtuni background, an ethnic group most famously known for constituting the Taliban. Perhaps the Taliban’s most notorious act was to shoot a young schoolgirl by the name of Malala Yousafzai in the head for daring to attend school in defiance of their strictures. Though critically injured, Malala would go on to recover and become an outspoken advocate for girls’ education around the world, ultimately winning a Nobel Prize.

As a fellow Yousafzai (though my family spells it Yusufzai), I was horrified by what had happened to Malala specifically, but as a thinking and feeling human being, I was also outraged by the status of women and girls under Taliban law. So much of what was imposed upon all women, not just Pashtuns, living under Taliban law, was done in the name of a reading of Islam that invalidated the humanity of half the population. The Taliban had taken a religion practiced by a quarter of the world and turned it into a weapon aimed at the women of their communities. And not just the women, of course. The Taliban’s creed of nihilism had a drastic impact on the rights of minorities, political dissidents, and male members of Pashtun communities, as well as any who opposed their rule.

As a Pashtun Muslim woman, I saw these two forces of systematic erasure and oppression as being indelibly connected.

And I decided that I would write a series that put women at the front and center of the Islamic tradition, a tradition they would then use to liberate themselves from oppression and to reclaim their personhood and dignity. In writing the series, I began with the minute and personal—my own background—then expanded to encompass the astonishing sweep of the Islamic civilization. And while in the process of excavating my personal history, I turned a lens on a moment of crisis and decline in the broader Muslim world, focusing on the issue of faith being used as an instrument of oppression.

There were many challenges to taking this approach. As I considered both the personal and the global, I had to be careful not to give ammunition to xenophobes with a particular hatred of Islam and Muslims, along with a contempt for nuance. And I myself had to be wary of falling into the trap of depicting an extremist fringe as representing the center, while still speaking up on the issues that concerned me. The Khorasan Archives were shaped by these tensions and concerns.

The touchstones of my fantasy series were taken from Islamic history, but placed almost exclusively in the hands of women, as a speaking back to narratives, both classical and modern, that treat us as no more than a footnote.

The Bloodprint

So in The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, a dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the world of Khorasan. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and is particularly concerned with destroying the written word. The Talisman’s other passion is the subjugation of women: Their creed is founded on the oppression and enslavement of women.

In the different parts of the world of Khorasan, resistance groups have formed to fight the Talisman’s tyranny. At their forefront are the Companions of Hira, a group of women mystics whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. (Without naming it as such in the series, this sacred scripture refers to the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.) Arian and Sinnia are two of the most powerful members of this group, one knowledgeable in the Claim, the other in weaponry and war, bound by an unshakable sisterhood. Together, they have stalked Talisman slave-chains and disrupted the Talisman’s power. Now they set out in pursuit of the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world, because it is the key to Khorasan’s salvation.

The quest for the Bloodprint is a quest to deliver the world from tyranny and ignorance. It’s an inherently radical and revolutionary tale because the women in this story—the Companions of Hira, the Empress of the Cloud Door, the Khanum behind the Wall, the Queen of the Negus, the leaders of the Basmachi resistance, the Teerandaz archers of Ashfall—have each imagined a different future for themselves, a future where they topple the patriarchy and reinstate themselves as full and equal citizens.

I wrote The Bloodprint because I wanted to write about my own culture, Pashtun culture—its strengths, its beauties, its fascinating traditions, yet also, its shortcomings. I particularly wanted to write about Pashtun women because of the rise of the Taliban.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Because there has been no recent reliable census in the country, that number could be anywhere between roughly 40 and 60 percent of the population. Pashtuns also make up the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan, at around 15 percent of the population. The Taliban, or as they call themselves, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is a political organization and military movement composed mainly of Pashtuns. They rose to power in Afghanistan in 1994 and were prominently involved in the civil war. Many Afghans believed they would guarantee stability after decades of war. Their stance against corruption in an era of rampant corruption also made them popular. The Taliban movement recruited Pashtuns from southern and eastern Afghanistan who were mainly educated, if educated at all, in traditional Islamic schools called madrasas. Kandahar became their stronghold, and over the years, there have been different manifestations of the group, with a spillover effect and related entities operating within northern Pakistan.

As is well known now, Taliban rule was characterized by an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law that resulted in the systemic oppression of women and minorities. In the period ranging from 1996-2001, the Taliban conducted a scorched earth policy of destroying vast areas of farmland, murdering civilians, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and denying UN food aid to 160,000 thousand civilians in need. (This is why the Khorasan Archives has as its backdrop the issue of on an ongoing famine.) The Taliban also became known for the crime of widespread cultural destruction, such as the blowing up of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan province in 2001.

As time went on, and their power became consolidated, the Taliban’s version of Sharia law became increasingly restrictive. Among the things they banned were kite-flying, poetry, music, dancing, singing, radio, television, the theater, various forms of fiction and nonfiction, and the reporting of the free press. A strict dress code was enforced on men and women both—the length of a man’s beard, the completeness of a woman’s burqa and veil—but the most egregious of their abuses were against women. Restricting women’s right to work, women’s access to healthcare, and the education of women and girls, as well as engaging in violent attacks—including acid attacks—upon schoolgirls and teachers, and ultimately, the burning and closing of schools.ii

To the Taliban, women are a constant source of temptation and corruption and thus their freedom, including freedom of thought, needs to be controlled and constrained. The extent of the Taliban’s influence has fluctuated over the years, but is on the rise again in parts of the country.

The name Taliban derives from “talib,” which means “student,” and Taliban is the Pashto-language plural “students.” Students formed the backbone of the Taliban. This painful irony of students who possess very little knowledge and wish to prevent others, particularly women and girls, from acquiring any, is at the heart of the Khorasan Archives.

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to examine the impact of decades of war in Afghanistan or the role of foreign interventions. My primary focus in writing my series was to explore the status of women and girls under a law where freedom is curtailed in the name of two things: a fundamentalist interpretation of ideology and the code of Pashtun culture, known as Pashtunwali/Pakhtunwali, where tribal and clan honor is seen as paramount. So how have these two factors affected women and girls?

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report on the status of girls’ education in Afghanistan. Sixteen years after the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan ousted the Taliban, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Insecurity, poverty, and displacement keep girls out of school, no matter the promises of international donors. Only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, as compared to 66 percent of adolescent boys.

Afghanistan’s government provides fewer schools for girls than boys at both the primary and secondary levels. In half the country’s provinces, fewer than 20 percent of teachers are female, a major barrier for the many girls whose families will not accept their being taught by a man, especially as they become adolescents. Separation and segregation of the sexes is an important part of Pashtun culture, particularly in tribal areas.

In contested areas of the country, girls seeking to attend school also face security threats. The conflict has been accompanied by lawlessness. Militias and criminal gangs have proliferated, and girls face threats including sexual harassment, kidnapping, and acid attacks. In this environment, education is increasingly affected, and girls are disproportionately harmed. But they are not the only ones harmed. Boys, of course, are indoctrinated in Taliban schools, taught only an extremist interpretation of Islam, with no access to alternate points of view, or richer and more diverse forms of education. They’re taught by teachers with a vested interest in promoting the Taliban worldview, and from a young age, boys live the Pashtun code of Pashtunwali, which has its dignity, beauty and strength, but which can also be oppressive to all genders. For decades, Pashtun boys have grown to manhood fighting the Taliban’s wars or living with the outcome of those wars in a deeply war-traumatized nation.

So in writing this series I not only wanted to explore what happens to women under a law like the Taliban’s, but also the impact on the boys and young men who have no other path forward than war—no other guarantors of security than a group like the Taliban.

As I mentioned in my introduction, in all my writing, I’m engaged in the most delicate balancing act. It’s vitally important to me not to contribute to the demonization of Muslim communities through my work. Yet I can’t be silent on the issue of human rights, women’s rights, or the erasure of women from participation in public or communal life and from most accounts of Islamic history. To counteract this, I highlight the contributions of women to the dizzying accomplishments of the Islamic civilization in the worldbuilding of the Khorasan Archives.

And to facilitate that delicate process of critical self-reflection without falling into the trap of feeding racist anti-Muslim discourse, I began with the story of a Pashtun woman like myself. My main character, Arian, is from the city of Candour, and she’s living through a historical moment where women are treated the same way by the Talisman—some thousand years into a future where the world has burned down—as they are currently treated by the Taliban. In Khorasan, women have lost access to their history, to knowledge, to education and to individual freedom. In The Bloodprint, I write about what it’s like to live in that society, almost entirely from the perspective of women.

The Black Khan
The Blue Eye

But in the second and third books in the series, The Black Khan and The Blue Eye, without taking anything away from the heroism of the women in my series, I bring into focus Arian and Sinnia’s confederates and allies. Men who oppose the Talisman’s rule of law and who help to bring down a patriarchy that oppresses all the people of Khorasan with its anti-humanism. I write about Arian’s ward, Wafa, a Hazara boy—when the Hazara are a persecuted group, as they are today in Afghanistan—who has ample and intimate knowledge of the Talisman’s cruelty. I also open up the story to include Arian’s beloved, Daniyar, the Silver Mage and Guardian of Candour, a member of the Shin War tribe, a tribe that has fallen to Talisman rule. Daniyar in many ways embodies the code of Pashtunwali, the Pashtun way of life, with its traditional qualities of nobility, honor, and strength in war.

Perhaps less well-known or regarded is the concept of “namus” or women’s honor, which refers to the modesty, respectability and protection of women. A Pashtun man’s honor rests upon his ability to uphold and protect the honor and dignity of the women of his family and clan. Traditionally, the concept of “namus” has been a way of controlling the behavior of women so that it doesn’t diminish the honor of men.

But “namus” could also be conceived of as according honor to a man who upholds and protects the rights of women, a part of Pashtun culture which too often is disregarded, though not by Daniyar.

The Khorasan Archives spends some time developing the character of Daniyar as a man who has resisted Talisman law from its inception, and who has sought to teach the orphan boys of Candour another way of seeing and being. This conception of honor is given more weight as the series progresses. In writing about it, I was trying to answer the question of what other ways of being are possible for the boys and young men of a war-traumatized nation steeped in patriarchal culture. It was important to me to include Daniyar because I wanted to imagine what equality and partnership might look like in a world where relationships between the sexes are premised on subjugation and oppression.

This examination of roots and origins was only part of my project. It may have been the spark that lit my interest in writing the Khorasan Archives, but I realized I wanted to explore more than my own roots, or at least the specificity of my own roots. Which takes me back to the question of Muslim identity, to the interconnectedness—for good or ill—of a global community.

In looking at the role of religion in society, it was evident that there are many similarities between the Taliban and other extremist groups—who of course, do not represent mainstream Muslim society, practice or ethics—but who have evolved patriarchal theologies to oppress women in Muslim-majority lands. A common factor within these theologies is the obsession with Muslim women’s dress: the need to comment on it, to legislate it, to either veil or unveil Muslim women forcibly, depending on the society or the era, and to intrude ever more deeply into Muslim women’s lives. Wherever an extremist interpretation of Islam flourishes—whether in the heartland of Arabia, or in rural communities in Nigeria, or in the cosmopolitan cities of Iran, or with fundamentalist revisionism in progressive societies like Malaysia and Turkey, extremist ideology is nearly always accompanied by two things: (1) the oppression of women to varying degrees along a spectrum, and (2) the violation of the human rights and human dignity of minorities.

I want to emphasize that this doesn’t apply to all Muslim societies, nor to all interpretations of Islamic theology and practice. I am pointing specifically to places and moments of crisis and decline. The Muslim world is vast, it can’t be painted with a single brush. It encompasses many different cultures, practices and histories. More, many instances of crisis and decline can be attributed less to Islamic theology and more to broken politics, particularly in the Middle East; to prevailing social, economic and political conditions in specific states, such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria.

Having said that, there is a thread of commonality between groups like ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, or elements of the Iranian theocracy, etc.: the fundamentally exploitative, exclusionary, anti-humanist, intolerant and patriarchal use to which religion is put in the service of tyrants or groups who seek exclusive power and control in deeply religious societies.

My personal history is rooted in societies like these.

As a Muslim woman who is part of the global community, or the ummah, my present and future are also connected to them all. It was on that basis that I wanted to interrogate the interplay between religion and society, and to challenge an anti-humanist, patriarchal, intolerant and exclusionary reading of religion that denies women equality and dignity, rendering them a lesser order of physical and spiritual beings.

But I wanted to be even more radical than that in terms of how I addressed these issues in my books. The Islamic tradition is a tradition I venerate. Its history isn’t merely academic to me—it’s deeply personal. I claim it for myself, just as many Muslim women claim it for themselves. We refuse to be excluded from it, to be ignored, or underwritten or forgotten. This is why I gave the magic in the series the name of the Claim. The Companions of Hira are claiming their tradition for themselves. The Claim is an oral magic that speaks to the power of the written word so I performed a bit of linguistic wordplay deriving “claim” from “kalimah/kalam,” which in Arabic means “speech” or “utterance” or “the word,” and in the case of “kalaam Allah”, “the sacred word.”

I was also fascinated by the story of the “munafiqeen”—the hypocrites. In the context of Islamic history, the “munafiqeen” were those who promised to stand with the Prophet Muhammad against his enemies, but went whichever way the prevailing wind blew, refusing to stand for any principle. And in the context of the Khorasan Archives, I thought about this a great deal. I considered the hypocrisy of preaching morality and piety to women, while practicing the rankest injustice. I thought of those Taliban warlords who took a faith premised on equality and justice, and turned it into an instrument of humiliation, subjugation and war.

Thus, the themes of the Khorasan Archives were born. The idea of a liberation theology came to life, and my Companions of Hira set off not to fight a war against men, but to reclaim their tradition for themselves, to have an equal say in interpreting it, reading it, living it, to be able to use it as a tool of justice, to use it to bring down the patriarchy and end a reign of injustice.

I began with the story of Pashtun women in Afghanistan, then swept through the history, terrain and mythology of the Islamic civilization—which despite our linguistic, ethnic, cultural or sectarian differences—is what the Muslim ummah holds in common.

The series doesn’t use the terms and names that I describe in this essay because I imagined a future where history was erased, and languages intermingled into a common tongue, though without any difficulty at all, you’ll deduce that the high tongue in this series is Arabic. The Arabic language touches all the histories and cultures of the Islamic civilization and has penetrated all its mother tongues. Whether they speak Arabic or not, most Muslim children from observant families learn to read classical Arabic at a very young age. To me, this is a thing of beauty—a thing that links us, a history I cherish.

In writing about the moment of crisis and decline embodied by groups like the Taliban or Boko Haram—and their culture of ugliness, I wanted to speak back to ugliness with beauty. The beauty of Arian and Sinnia’s quest. The beauty of the future they imagine, a future that builds on the dignity of their heritage, in place of the perversion of it brought into being by the Talisman/Taliban.

The Arabic language was central to the story because the Islamic civilization is a civilization of the book. A civilization of the word.

So I wrote about an illiterate people, a people without access to the written word, without access to the holy word, and in their commitment to ignorance, in their anti-intellectualism, in their rejection of innovation and of independent reasoning, in their refusal to embrace pluralism or diversity of opinion—they brought themselves to ruin.

Only the Companions of Hira can redeem them, the group of women mystics who are at the center of my story, led by Arian and Sinnia, two of the most gifted and determined Companions. And I chose the name “Companions of Hira” quite deliberately. In the context of Islamic history, Hira was a cave in Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad received divine revelation. The Companions were Companions of Muhammad, and through their accounts, we’ve come to learn about his life and teachings, as with the disciples of Jesus. But in most accounts of Islamic history, little attention is paid to women. They’ve been all but lost to history, or relegated to footnotes, even when they were powerful in their own right, as jurists, mystics or warriors. So with the Khorasan Archives, I was deeply motivated to speak back to this erasure. Thus, the Companions of Hira in my series—those who hold what is effectively religious authority—are all and only women.

A final point about my radical intentions: in this introspective series that is essentially a calling to account, the women of Khorasan do not require liberation by outside forces, nor do they need to be educated by those who deem themselves superior. There’s no civilizing mission here.

Arian and Sinnia are more than capable of liberating themselves—not with the aid of foreign intervention, not by being enlightened as to the backwardness of their ways, nor through any colonial constructs at all.

In Khorasan, for revolution to succeed, for a democratic and egalitarian transition to take root, the new form must be congruent with the old. The roots of reformation must lie within the people of Khorasan’s own tradition, if it is to be seen as authentic. If it is to have legitimacy.

The Bladebone

And what the heroines of my series would argue is that you derive from a tradition what you bring to it. If you bring an ethical perspective to it, an ethical reading will flourish in your hands.

So far from being used as an instrument of oppression, Arian and Sinnia find their dignity and freedom in the Claim. Because their reading of the Claim is the reading of all people of decency. It’s one that recognizes beauty. It honors human dignity, and it enshrines and protects fundamental human rights.

In writing this series, and excavating my personal history alongside my connection to the Islamic civilization, that was what I hoped to recognize and re-claim.


i Pashtuns are called Pashtun/Pakhtun in the Pashto/Pakhto language, and Pathans in the Urdu language. My family is Urdu-speaking, but I use the term Pashtun as it’s more broadly known.

ii “I Won’t Be A Doctor and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan. (Human Rights Watch, October 2017). See also, Afghanistan: Girls Struggle for an Education


Ausma Sehanat Khan
Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women, and is the award-winning author of both the Khorasan Archives (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan, The Blue Eye, and The Bladebone, coming this fall), and the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak series (beginning with The Unquiet Dead). Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. For more information about Ausma, please visit her website or her Twitter.

Sirens Essay: Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comic Series

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.

Sirens also offers an online 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 Kaia Alderson!

Have You Seen Her? Looking for Shuri on the Pages of Her Comics Series
by Kaia Alderson

When the Shuri comics run was announced, I was so excited to have a chance to see more of the spunky teenager portrayed in the Black Panther film. I ran to the comic bookstore on the day issue #1 was released hoping to see a story that focused on her—an intelligent, spunky young woman who was Black. (Shuri is African. I’m using the more generic term “Black” here since I am examining visual representation in texts where character geographic origins aren’t always clear.) I understood that comic book Shuri was not necessarily the same character as the one portrayed on screen. But what mattered to me was that there was a new space for action-packed stories that centered a woman of African descent.

Shuri #1 set the scene for a lot of promise to come—a young woman working through the insecurities that come with stepping into a leadership role filled with external expectations, The Elephant Trunk, and a mysterious online admirer. But that promise fell short as the series went on. With a woman of African descent as the main writer penning the story, I expected a storyline that centered a heroine of African descent. Instead, it soon veered off into adventures where Shuri teamed up with other (mostly male) people and non-human lifeforms. It appeared that the title character was barely in her own story at times.

How did a #RepresentationMatters dream scenario go so sideways?

I decided to prove my suspicions by taking a more scientific approach. Time and access did not allow me to examine every text in which comic book Shuri has made an appearance, so I chose to focus on the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback titled Shuri, written as a part of his Black Panther run, and the 10-issue run of the standalone Shuri comic written by Nnedi Okorafor and Vita Ayala. I kept it simple with a comparison of visual representation by counting the number of panels in which Black women, Black men, aliens/non-humans, Shuri herself, and other Marvel characters were depicted in the Shuri series. I also went back and counted the panels in the Reginald Hudlin-penned trade paperback Black Panther: Shuri – The Deadliest of the Species to see if there were any differences when the writer was a Black man. Ironically, however, it was the inclusion of nonbinary Afro-Latinx comics writer Vita Ayala (Shuri issues #6 and #7) who demonstrated how effective #RepresentationMatters can be in superhero(ine) comics, yet in an unexpected way.

My assumption prior to compiling my data was that there would be more “screen-time” on the Black female experience within the Okorafor/Ayala standalone Shuri run than within the Hudlin storyline. (And that the “gaze” would be more affirming and women-centric.) That assumption proved to be true in the case of the Shuri character. Shuri appeared in 58% of Okorafor’s panels and 44% of Ayala’s panels, while she appeared in only 29% of Hudlin’s panels. However, while Shuri was technically in more than 58% of Okorafor’s panels, she did not appear as herself visually in 38 panels (5.4% of Okorafor’s panels) because she was inhabiting the non-human Groot’s body. (I thought that this was an interesting choice for Okorafor to make given the criticism the movie The Princess and The Frog received because Disney’s first Black animated princess spent the majority of her screen time depicted, not as an African-American woman, but as a frog.) Regardless of that choice, Shuri was still more likely to appear in a story carrying her name when it is written by a person who identifies as a Black woman. But even then, she shows up in a little over half of the panels in the Black female-penned story arc.

It took me a while to digest the fact that Shuri only appears in 58% of the Okorafor-penned panels. (Actually, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that.) How depressing. Even when a Black woman crafts a Big 2 superhero comics story about a Black woman, that title character only showed up in 58% of the story. What the hell? I know I have yet to examine Eve Ewing’s Ironheart series this way—but I’m almost scared to do so after compiling these statistics for Shuri.

Thankfully, the next set of numbers I compiled were more promising. I looked at how often Black women in general (when not identified as Afro-Latinx) were depicted. I found that Black women were more likely to appear in a panel when the writer identified as Black (non-Latinx): 77% of Okorafor’s panels, 44% of Ayala’s panels, and 66% of Hudlin’s panels. In fact, the only Black (non-Latinx) woman in Ayala’s panels was Shuri. They did have one woman who identified as Afro-Latinx. But even so, she still only appeared in 5% of Ayala’s panels. In this particular sample, it is safe to say that the writer’s ethnic and gender identifications matter when to comes to who we see, and how often, in a comics story.

What really hit home for me in terms of #OwnVoices and #RepresentationMatters was my findings within the issues that were written by Vita Ayala (Shuri #6 and #7).

They were the only writer in my study who had Black women (who were not identified as Latinx) written into less than half of their panels. The only Black (non-Latinx) woman to appear in their panels was, in fact, Shuri. However, Afro-Latinx men appeared in 68% of their panels. Miles Morales shows up in 29% of the story. This is a win for the push to depict more diverse stories within Big 2 superhero comics. But it is frustrating for those who came to the Shuri comic hoping to see more of the equally underrepresented Black female experience on its pages.

It must also be noted that, while I didn’t record how often other groups were depicted, Ayala’s issues contained the most diverse representations visually out of the three writers. This makes sense given that their story took place in Jersey City, New Jersey (USA), while Okorafor’s and Hudlin’s stories primarily took place upon the African continent.

My examination here was not intended to be an exhaustive, definitive study. The point was more to start answering the question of whether it really matters who creates these stories. In taking a closer look at the visual text, my goal was to determine whether or not the visual representation of Big 2 comics characters with marginalized identities changes when put in the hands of #OwnVoices writers and artists via a micro survey of the Shuri comics run. Clearly in the case of the comic books’ Shuri character, how the person writing her story identifies socially influences how often she even appears in her story. But even when she is in the hands of a Black woman, much less in her own series, she still needs a chance to dominate the storylines marketed under her name. The fact that she only visually appears (as herself) in 55% of the panels in the entire standalone Shuri series may have contributed to why that run resulted in low sales.

As a Black female reader, it is frustrating to see that Shuri’s visual representation is so low in this 10-issue series that is supposed to be about her. Shuri is a not a traditional Big 2 superhero(ine). A comics series marketed under her name is going to attract a non-traditional audience, mainly Black women. It does a disservice to this character, and the audience she attracts, if Shuri is not depicted on an overwhelming majority of the pages in her stories. However, it is encouraging that the likelihood of seeing Shuri and other Black women on the page significantly increases when the story is written by a Black person, even more so when that person is a Black woman. Similarly, the visual representation of the Afro-Latinx experience appears to increase when the story is in the hands of an Afro-Latinx writer regardless of who the title character of the comic is. These findings, in themselves, are progress. I look forward to seeing more of it.


Kaia Alderson
Kaia Alderson is a comedy and fiction writer based out of coastal Georgia. Her recent publications include romantic comedy novella Calling Her Bluff and comics shorts stories in Ladies’ Night anthology volumes 4 and 5. She has performed with Atlanta-based 2 Girls 3 Eyes improv group and is an alumna of Spelman College. Kaia has studied writing with the Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Second City, and Voices of Our Nation (VONA) workshop. When she isn’t living her best life on Twitter, Kaia spends her evenings worshipping all things Nora Ephron.

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.

 

How reading translated fiction challenges your cultural assumptions

Sirens Newsletter—Volume 11, Issue 8: August 2019

This month:

 

Juliet Grames both loves and hates genre distinctions

Readers of fantasy chasing the thrill of world immersion, please follow along as we learn how editor-publisher-author Juliet Grames leaps over barriers of language to roll and delight in the words of other cultures. In our interview, she tells us more about her feelings on genre and what fantasy must deliver, and the writing of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. This fall, Juliet will be leading the Sirens Studio reading intensive: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost in Translation: A Behind-the-Scenes Discussion About Translated Literature.”

 

Hurry up with those registrations and tickets!

Remember, we stop selling online registrations for Sirens on September 21. After that, we’ll have limited availability at the door, but no guarantees. We’ll also stop selling tickets for the Sirens Studio, the Sirens Supper, and the Sirens Shuttle on September 21—and those will not be available at the door. Get them before they’re gone!

Find out more!

 

Our 2019 Conference Schedule is live!

Are you ready to see when we scheduled your favorite things, ostensibly at the same time as your other favorite things? Get your quills out, and check out this year’s Sirens conference schedule here.

 

In our Sirens Essay series this month…

 

Get to know some members of our amazing Sirens community

As our conference creeps closer, we’ll be chatting with some of our returning attendees to find out more about them and what they love about Sirens. We recently spoke with Seattle-based YA author, Julia Ember, who shared with us her personal path to glittery gender-deconstructing fantasy writing, as well as Susie O’Brien, a voracious reader and spectacular seamstress.

 

Books and Breakfast: Body Selections

Still looking for some books to discuss first thing in the morning with your fellow Sirens attendees? This month we looked at the titles that were selected for breaking the typical body mold of heroism. Get the rundown here on the first volume of Faith and the novel Gullstruck Island to see how they fit your fancy.

 

What we’re reading

Too much heart shredding already happening in the world? Join Amy in her latest monthly book club read for a much-needed heart-soothing tale of female friendship, Destiny Soria’s Iron Cast on the blog and Goodreads.

From our review squad:

 

Awesome August Book Releases

See the beautiful new books we rounded up for you here!

Erynn’s Pick:

Hollow Kingdom

A feast for crows it is not. When humanity succumbs to self-inflicted fleshy decay, Kira Jane Buxton’s foulmouthed narrating protagonist S.T., a domesticated crow, would much rather have some Cheetos. Unfortunately, his kind-but-pathetic human companion has also fallen victim to the zombie malady afflicting Seattle. So along with a new dimwitted dog, S.T. sets out to use his television education to save all the silly people. Described as both heartwarming and tragic, transformative and funny, Hollow Kingdom is a post-apocalyptic tale that I can sink my beak into.

 

Faye’s Pick:

The Magnolia Sword

I have never met a Mulan retelling I didn’t like. The 1998 animated Mulan was formative for me as a wee Chinese North American girl, and my feelings for the live-action remake aside, each version comes with different interpretations of Chinese identity that I know are found in multitudes both on the mainland and in the diaspora. I already love Sherry Thomas’s romance novels, so when I found out she was taking on this fierce genderbending iconic warrior in this wuxia-inspired romantic YA… just take all of my money already!

 

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).

 

Presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc.

 

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2020
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2019
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2018
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2017
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2016
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2015
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2014
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2013
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2012
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2011
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2010
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2009
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