As co-founder and female counterpart of the duo that started New England Speculative Writers (NESW), I have the pleasure of writing the final blog post for Women’s History Month. It’s only recently that I’ve really started to fully understand what being a woman in society means and how that impacts me as a human.
I’ve always tried to look at people as humans first, before applying the gender tag they identify with. I think that’s part of the storyteller in me – looking for commonalities first and building out from there. In many ways, I’ve applied that practice to how I view myself too. When I think of myself in a context, I don’t necessarily view myself as a female in the middle of a situation, I think of myself as a person in the situation, but unconsciously, I have come to realize, I have been applying certain gender rules that have affected the trajectory of my life. It’s not that I was unaware of the “traditional” roles women play in society, I just didn’t really think many applied to me. In some ways I thought of myself as a strong independent woman who blazed her own path in life and didn’t adhere to societal gender rules. I still think I am, but…
I’m an X-gener. I grew up in the era when traditional roles for women were in a great shift. My parents were the offspring of what Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation”. I grew up in the 70’s when society was seeing and feeling the effects of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the battle cry of “I am woman, hear me roar (“I Am Woman”, co-written and performed by Helen Reddy, 1971, along with Ray Burton). More and more women were leaving to work outside the home, and the term “latch-key kid” became more prevalent. In addition to more women in the traditional workforce, there was a boom of companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Stanley Home Products that allowed women to have a foot on each side of the fence so to speak. They could work and earn money, but still have the flexibility to fulfill their traditional roles as wife and mother; keeping a home and raising children.
Combine what was happening in society with watching movies like 9 to 5 where a group of women are fighting “the man” and reading books written by both male and female authors who portrayed girls and women as smart, strong, independent or fighting against their society rules, like A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle or some of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists Of Avalon, I grew up seeing the shift toward equality in action. I saw great strides, and have continued to see progress, but I also realize we have a ways to go still. Many of the women of my childhood were straddling old and new cultural rules and trying to make them both work, and in a lot of ways we still are today.
Like a lot of people, I’m in the process of a sort of awakening. I think we as humans are becoming more enlightened about inequalities at a faster pace than previous generations. A big reason for this is technology, social media and the internet. The world is a much smaller place than it was twenty years ago. News travels faster, cell phones with cameras are everywhere and people are really starting to realize that there is a lot of bad out there, but more importantly we are also realizing that we can do something about it, as seen in the myriad of hashtag causes, including many to continue the fight for equality for women.
I spent over twenty years in the working world, ten of those years were in the corporate world. Five years ago all of that changed. A series of events occurred – a long and boring story not worth telling, but all the same life changing. I found myself unemployed, burnt out, extremely unhappy with my life, and ready for change. I made the decision to get off the hamster wheel of “working to live” and change my perspective to finding a job that would allow me to “live to work”. I took time to start doing things I enjoyed and really learning what makes me as a person happy.
During my time off from the working world I started writing again. The more I wrote, the more my world and perspective blossomed. One of the first things about my writing I realized was that all my protagonists were women. Women of all different strengths and backgrounds, but strong, independent, adventurous, amazing women. The more I wrote about these strong women the more I realized I was writing about all the women I knew or read about and admired, and I started to see the differences between the life I had been living and them. That’s when I saw how inequalities of women had affected my life. The workplace is one example. For instance allowing the term “work wife” to be applied to me, even though I was a national account manager of a multimillion dollar account, allowing myself to be talked over during meetings, not voicing my opinions as loudly as the men were, all the while never really thinking about how wrong that was. I didn’t see it. It had been happening all along, and for so long, that I didn’t recognize it as anything but normal, nor did I recognize how unhappy I was trying to conform. I can now say, never again. My eyes are open. The “box” I had been trying to fit my wild and unconventional self into for the sake of fitting in, has been tossed in the trash!
I think we as people will always have struggle – either collectively or in groups against one injustice or another, but we, right now are lucky and unlucky enough to live in an era of technology and social media which has made the world a much smaller and more transparent place. It’s a double-edge sword, that we have quickly learned to use negatively, and are finally starting to use to our advantage. We humans, we women, have more power now to change the world than we ever did. And we’re doing it. We as writers have the unique power to reflect the changes we want in our writing.
I want to take a moment to thank our NESW community for being a wonderful, diverse, inclusive group. That was one of the visions Jeremy and I had in starting this group. Please continue to help us build that. We need more of “us” in this world. Let us lead by example.
Cristina currently lives in Massachusetts. She earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, and spent many years on the West Coast living and working in Arizona and California. She moved back to New England in 2008, and began a journey that led to refocusing her life on the ‘want tos’ rather than the ‘have tos’, by making what she enjoys doing creatively a priority. In 2013 she participated in her first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a story called The Empire that a few years later would become her first completed novel. The Empire is currently available on Amazon.
This celebratory month of women in speculative fiction has seen posts on many topics all of which come back to a central important issue – inclusion. I write in an area of fantasy that is often relegated to the back burner in the sci-fi/fantasy community and among writers in general: romance. Yes, romance is frequently the red-headed step child at the family reunion, but I can’t help it. Love and relationships are always the focus of my writing.
Most of my published work would be classified as either paranormal romance or romantic fantasy with many of these being in the category of retold fairy tales. It’s a genre I’ve loved for decades and while it generally finds a lot of success with the reading public, many people I meet have an easier time believing in mermaids and magic than love or happy endings. (New England is especially known for this – romance sells the lowest in this part of the country).
What can be more basic, more interesting, and more revealing than how we choose and treat our closest relationships? When as writers we create worlds we need to ask ourselves about the mating, pairing and parental relationships that exist in this new world. When we read, if these things are left out or ignored, something about the world seems off, lacking.
Certainly the various movements including #metoo, #timesup and #ownvoices show that how we interact with one another, how we include those who identify differently from us, has a lasting impact on current and future generations. Speculative fiction gives writers and readers an amazing opportunity to look at the truth of these relationships – the problematic and the healthy – from new perspectives which can help us understand our own. Look at the recent resurgence in popularity of The Handmaids Tale, science fiction which puts relationships at the core. No, it’s not a romance. This is a world where there is no place for romance – and look at the results of that.
I know that in my own writing, when I work in a paranormal world, I look at what rules I no longer have to adhere to, where I can get creative, and where can I build something completely new – something that reflects what I believe is the best a relationship can bring to an individual.
We still have challenges when presenting these relationships either in books or film. From Sleeper to Demolition Man to Gattaca science fiction and fantasy movies show what might be different in the future when it comes to the challenges of love, sex and relationships on other worlds and in other futures. Many make it comical (when I asked about this on Facebook a friend reminded me of Barbarella), some eliminated it all together. But at the end of the recent blockbuster hit Wonder Woman she extols the value of love and how this aspect of who we are is one of the things that make us worth saving.
Would you like some recommendations? My favorite fantasy author who looks at the importance and influence relationships have on our lives and our world is Anne Bishop. All of her books explore romantic relationships, but the Black Jewels trilogy (and beyond) is particularly amazing as is her Others series. And if in your fantasies you want vampires, then Joey W. Hill’s Vampire Queen series is one of the hottest series I’ve ever read.
I have come to believe that we brush love and all it stands for aside at our own peril. It deserves to be a priority, not a second thought, not something relegated to the silly or trivial. Certainly not something called “girly”. Anyone who has felt and expressed a wide range of emotions knows – emotions are not for the faint of heart. They require great strength and they show the strength of those who experience them.
As Diana says at the end of Wonder Woman, there is darkness and light in all of us and only love can truly save the world. I agree.
A Jersey Girl trapped without good diners or boardwalks in New England, Rachel Kenley is the author of eight romance novels, most recently the Melusine’s Daughters trilogy. Rachel started reading romances at 14 and credits them with her lifelong fascination with relationships and how they contribute to our ability to go for our dreams. When she is not writing she is homeschooling her sons, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with laundry, and laughing as much as possible. She believes in shameless flirting, finding pleasure in the everyday, never missing the chance to watch The Wizard of Oz and the emotional and economic power of retail therapy. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and at www.rachelkenley.net where you can also sign up for her newsletter.
Intersections Can Be Confusing
Because I’m a woman and I write spec fic, I’m often put on panels at conventions dealing with “women’s issues” vis à vis writing. I enjoy those panels and enjoy meeting my fellow panelists and the conversations we have about what it’s like striding into what has been traditionally men’s spaces.
But the conversations don’t really go far enough for me and it feels like I’ve been participating in the “101” level discussions for some time now.
In some ways, I also feel awkward in those conversations. My female identity is only a part of who I am, and it’s limited me far less than some of my other identities.
While I’ve never deliberately hid my neuro-atypicality, I’ve also not been extremely public about it. Until recently, I really didn’t believe that my “aspie” nature was a hindrance to my current life. After all, I wasn’t identified as having Asperger’s until my 30s and by then I was a successful physical therapist, wife, and mother.
So what does it mean to be a woman who is also neuro-atypical?
For me, it meant that very little in the literature described me or pertained to me. Not in the women’s literature. Not in the autism literature.
When you live at an intersection, instead of doubling (or tripling, etc) your identity, it fractionates it. Try to find writing advice for women on the autism spectrum. Until very recently, it wasn’t even believed by the scientific establishment that many women were on the spectrum and nearly all the data, all the research, all the narratives focused on the male presentation.
The advice for women writers often didn’t speak to me. I’m not sure whether that’s because of my aspie nature or because of other experiences and identities I hold. I’ve never had a hard time finding my voice or feeling like what I had to say wasn’t “worthy”. What held me back was near-crippling anxiety and until I started to embrace my non neuro-typical identity, I had no tools to address it.
And still, 20 years after the psychiatrist I was meeting with reviewed my history and my educational records and told me I was on the spectrum, I have kept that part of my identity cloaked.
Not fully hidden, but certainly not a label I publicly claimed.
So why am I talking about it now?
I recently saw the call for the “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” anthology and thinking about submitting to it make me extremely uncomfortable. So I spent some time getting to why.
Part of it was I feel relatively privileged: I am in a situation in which I am supported to be a full time writer. My books are finding their readers. What “right” did I have to submit and potentially take a spot away from a writer who might deserve/need that break more than I did.
That was the surface reason.
Digging deeper, there were others.
Was I “disabled?” If so, was I disabled enough? Did I want my carefully crafted identity as a women writing SF&F to be conflated with the word disability?
These are heavy questions and I don’t have final answers to them.
In the end, I didn’t submit to the anthology.
And yet, I’m “outing” myself here.
(I never said I wasn’t a hot mess of contradictions.)
So who am I and how to my identities inform my work?
I would describe my novels as extremely character-centric. Most of what I write is in deep third-person point of view and I feature fully-realized female characters in everything I write.
I do the same for all my characters, regardless of gender.
In looking though my body of work, there are definite themes that emerge, many of which come from my various identities. Characters have different patterns of strengths and struggles. They have disabilities – some overt, some hidden. Those struggles inform each characters’ growth and arc, rather than simply function as surface traits.
Ultimately, that’s what I have come to understand about my own intersections: being female and being neuro-atypical (two of my myriad identities) shape the lens with which I view the world.
And they are foundational to how I chose to write new ones.
LJ Cohen’s fifth and final book of her Halcyone Space series – A STAR IN THE VOID – will be available Summer of 2018.
It’s weird that I have to ask this question. It’s the year 2018, and I can’t give you a list that is strictly male and doesn’t involve a romance as a focal plot point.
However, the why is answered fairly quickly the moment you walk into a SFF convention. If you haven’t, have no fear, there’s a scene from Brooklyn 99 that illustrates it perfectly: a panel on Diversity in SFF and its all straight middle-aged white guys in various states of dress. As always, one of them is wearing a leather bomber jacket. Cause he’s not like those other SFF authors, he’s a cool SFF author.
Do I have a personal problem with romance in SFF? Gods no, read what you want, write what you want. But it shouldn’t be the only place I can read about queer men. And it is the only place I can read about queer men. Every book I’ve come across involving a queer male character in a leading role–not a supplementary character–is romance. And what that translates into is, unless they’re falling in love with someone, queer male characters don’t have stories to tell.
Which is, ya know, bullshit. Obviously.
But this is what happens in a genre dominated by straight white men; they’re going to write either straight men or queer women. Because that is both what they know and what they view as attractive.
So how do we go about writing queer men in SFF? And why is it so hard for so many writers to wrap their minds around?
First, you take every trope you remember from the 90’s and you set them on fire. Never approach them again. Don’t even look at them. They don’t exist. Then you build that character, just as you would any other character, and add in but they’re gay as an afterthought. How minor you want it to be and how you present that will depend on the level of acceptance in your world setting, and the character’s age. Are they younger and naive, or are they older and have seen various laws and politics surrounding the LGBT community rise and fall? And how does that affect their worldview?
But if I don’t use tropes or make the effeminate, how will people know they’re gay?
Oh buddy ol’ pal, that’s the beauty of it–you can reveal that little tidbit whenever you want. You can add it into a conversation, slip it in casually, or make it a big statement. For example, I came out to my DnD group last week when someone asked if my character had a crush on a party member and I said “No its not like that, Malachi’s like me. He’s demisexual. He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to others without very intense romantic feelings and a deep level of trust.”
Or you can flashback to it. Have it brought up in a memory. That’s how I introduced Yulian as being gay in the Silver Bullet Affair. It’s barely one sentence. And for me, that’s all I needed. I wanted my readers to know that Yulian is gay, has always known he was gay, and is living in a country where being gay was accepted and legal for quite some time before rulers changed hands (he’s Russian, by the way).
But who’s allowed to write about queer male MCs?
Anyone whose willing to give it due diligence, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. For example, if you’re doing an SFF in a previous known time and place in history, or even a current one, you need to do your research on how the LGBT culture functions. If it’s made up, you have to make a backstory for that culture. How has it stood the test of time? Have different regimes of rulers made it illegal or otherwise legal? Did it start out as being acceptable but became worse as the power to rule changed hands, or is it the opposite? A writer should always write what they know, and the the beauty of the modern world we live in today is that what you know can easily be remedied. We have at our fingertips access to first hand accounts and primary resources with which to utilize to write anything accurately, so long as you put the hours in.
Queer men can kick ass, and save the world, and not have a romance define their entire place in a story. They can be effeminate or masculine, have great taste or a terrible fashion sense, because a person’s sexuality isn’t a clothing style or a series of mannerisms that dictates how you present yourself. Queer men, like all human beings, are individuals first, sexuality second.
For a fine example of queer men kicking ass, check out the Silver Bullet Affair, book one in the Bulletproof Spy series, available now on Amazon.