What an absolutely beautiful story. I really love Jade, and even love her town, to be honest, because it’s filled with people who are imperfect but who are actually trying to do better. I think that oftentimes people will gravitate towards finding communities where they will be more accepted. But Jade feels a strong sense of home in nature, in the environment to which she is bonded. This is more important to her than being in a more accepting community. Is this choice, this decision, this sort of perspective, similar to your own experiences?
It is and it isn’t like what I’ve experienced. I live in a fairly forgiving area, the Connecticut River Valley, but I can’t imagine myself leaving here even if things were a lot harder. I wanted to write a story where a queer character from a small town doesn’t have to leave, doesn’t have to find community elsewhere. If Jade leaves home, she loses such a part of herself, and I feel the same way. We see this narrative of having to go somewhere else, of moving around to find your one true place, a lot, and there’s an awful lot to it. It’s a very American thing, in some ways. But there’s also something to be said for staying put, letting yourself sink into a place, and standing your ground where you are.
There’s a deliberate choice at play here, to make this story positive and bright, to avoid overt violence, and to depict a culture/world that is on the cusp of massive social change (or perhaps, more properly, in the middle of massive social change). In a sense, Jade’s experience is very different from many who are bullied or worse, whether over race, sexuality, gender, disability, or other factors. What are the advantages, disadvantages, or challenges to writing it this way? Or why is writing it this way important?
It was very important to me to write a positive story. I experienced a lot of that bullying you mention when I was young. I was someone who was perceived as a weird, feminine boy, and in the 1980s and early 1990s that was a very hard thing to be. There are many stories out there about LGBTQ people dealing with this awful, crushing weight of difference and exclusion and violence. I think, though, that it’s important to have stories that are not dark and brutal, but show that yes, there can be life, friendship, love, and family, too.
I have seen a few stories now where biologically shifting from male to female or vice versa becomes commonplace, and where people do it sort of on a whim. Sally does it for a week and “it didn’t work out. I like being what I am.” But this sort of idea, someone undergoing a change on a whim, stands in stark contrast to an experience where an individual strongly identifies as a gender other than what they have been assigned. Does presenting shifting sex as a casual option and practice risk devaluing the experience and struggle of people for whom change is a deep necessity?
I don’t think so, because everyone experiences gender and physicality so differently. For some people, it really is a desperate need to shift from one perceived gender to another. It was for me. But lots of people want to play with gender, to explore and experiment, to find out what’s really right for them, and to pick that one star in the sky where they are at peace and happy. Imagine a society where that desperate need is easily met, and where people who want to really can explore and try on different things without any issue at all. To me that sounds wonderful and hopeful, and I like to imagine that society as beautifully diverse in gender expression.
As the world is changing, so too is the field changing. Many new, emerging, and unpublished writers are nervous about creating pieces that directly discuss certain topics: racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. Do you believe that writing a piece like this, which is so clearly focused on gender, presents problems in terms of selling the work? Or do you feel like there are plenty of markets nowadays that will happily take something like this, and that putting this piece out there has little impact on a writer’s career?
I don’t think it’s as big a problem as it used to be, because the markets are changing. There are short story markets now that are very forward-thinking, accepting, and progressive, and make it a point to publish diverse stories. Lightspeed is one of those, thank goodness! One of the proudest moments of my career was having my story “Die, Sophie, Die” published in the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! issue in 2015. So there are markets out there, and that’s positive. That said, there’s obviously a huge part of this field that deeply dislikes and distrusts how the field is changing, which is discouraging. I hope that someday empathy will overcome fear for them.
Congrats on Extrahumans coming out from Book Smugglers in October! What are you working on now that readers (and new fans, after reading this story!) can look forward to?
In 2017, the Book Smugglers are publishing my space opera series about three sisters dealing with alien conspiracies, repressive governments, and personal triumphs and tragedies. So keep an eye out for that!
Spread the word!