An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we’ve been hosting a series of interviews with contributors to the anthology, Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  Hines was inspired to put the anthology together when he saw the heated response that Alex Dally MacFarlane received when she posted an essay on Tor.com calling for “an end to the default of binary gender in science fiction stories”.  Thanks to Alex for this fascinating interview about non-binary gender and fiction!

1.  Jim C. Hines said that your essay, “Post-Binary Gender In SF:  Introduction”, and the responses the essay got, inspired him to invite people to share their own experiences with representation on his blog.  Since then, you have written several other pieces for Tor.com about non-binary gender.  Have you noticed any difference in the tone of the comments?  Do you feel like some people are starting to understand your message better?

 

Most of my subsequent posts have been post-binary reviews of particular books, which haven’t drawn many comments. My non-review posts have received more. They’re… mixed. I’ve had some incredibly valuable comments, whether from specialists (eg: linguist Rose Lemberg commenting about “closed cases” and other issues on my post about adapting to non-binary pronouns) or fans/writers who are interested in the subject. I know the column has reached other non-binary SF fans and I know some binary-gendered SF fans are finding it interesting and informative, because they’ve told me. I care a lot more about that than the opinions of certain bigots and other people who won’t change (and who, yes, still leave comments on my posts, some of which the Tor.com moderators have needed to remove).

 

 

2.  What does non-binary gender mean to you?  Are there any websites you recommend for people who want to learn more or get support?

 

Well, I’m non-binary (my gender is best described as “it’s complicated”). I’ve found the best website is Twitter: the sheer quantity of marginalised people talking about their lives, experiences and all sorts of subjects is incredible. There’s a lot to be learnt by listening to people’s lived experiences, particularly lots of people, because everyone experiences their gender differently and it’s important to understand that there’s no one way to be non-binary. (But remember: these are people, not textbooks and not quiz machines.)

 

3.   Are there any books that you think do an excellent job of not defaulting to binary gender?

 

Hmm! No. Not that I’ve read.

 

There are books that I’ve enjoyed, but… I like Maureen F. McHugh’s Mission Child a lot, but the protagonist is the only non-binary person in a story that spans multiple cultures and locations. The world’s default is definitely binary. I found Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man fascinating — one of its cultures defaults to five genders — but it reinforces the five genders in exactly the same harmful ways that we reinforce our two, so it does and it doesn’t fulfil your question’s criteria. Potentially there’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, but it uses a binary pronoun to refer to people across cultures that mostly seem to recognise two genders (and it seems the Raadch recognises two but doesn’t care to differentiate in language, which is different to a non-binary default). I’ve had much better luck finding short stories that don’t default to binary, some of which are discussed in the next answer…

 

4.  You edited an anthology called “Aliens:  Recent Encounters”.  Does writing about aliens seem to make authors more comfortable with presenting a variety of gender identifications, body types, and skin tones?  How is writing about aliens potentially freeing, and how is it problematic?

 

I think it’s absurd to write aliens with the same sex and gender set-up as humans (which itself is a simplifying statement: humans do not have binary sex or binary gender, nor do all human cultures construct gender in the same ways), unless the aliens are of the panspermia, closely-related-to-us variety. I welcome science fiction where the aliens are different to us in this regard. The only problem is that writers almost always write the humans as binary in sex and gender: this is sometimes set up as a specific contrast. How strange, that more than two genders exist! etc.

 

I have enjoyed some stories with non-binary aliens and binary humans, but it’s where this contrast is not very pronounced, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”, where the aliens are multi-gendered (but this is not subject to remark). Then there’s Nancy Kress’ “My Mother, Dancing”, where humans encounter alien life for the first time — humans who all use a non-binary pronoun, hirs. Ditching the humans entirely is Eleanor Arnason’s “Knapsack Poems”, an interesting story, though the three sexes of her aliens are unfortunately gender essentialist by contemporary Western cultural norms. All three stories are reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters.

 

Meanwhile Ken Liu’s “The Shape of Thought” has humans hundreds of years in the future stymied by the non-binary pronouns used for the aliens they live with: zie/zir are compared to a pebbles obstructing the smooth flow of language. I am rarely so swiftly Othered!

 

I would like to see stories about aliens and gender, but not where the aliens’ non-binary gender system(s) contrasts a false binary in the humans. Multiple gender systems and aliens/humans who stand outside their cultural norms would be a bonus! Gender isn’t binary; it also isn’t tidy.

 

5.  What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?

 

I’m drawn to fiction I enjoy in all genres, whether realist or non-realist. I tend to prefer the latter, though, because I like outer space and surreal cities and so on, which all occur more often in non-realist fiction. From a post-binary perspective, I like the potential of science fiction and fantasy to thoroughly deconstruct the binary — or scrap it entirely. I wish they’d actually do it more! Non-binary gender system(s) as a norm is still so rare.

An Interview with Ithiliana, contributor to “Invisible”.

Invisible-FullWe are spending some of this summer hearing from authors who contributed essays to the anthology Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines.  These authors speak out about representation in science fiction and fantasy, and how the lack of representation or the nature of that representation affects them as readers and/or creators.  Today we have an email interview with Ithiliana , whose essay “Shards of Memory”  addresses how finding characters in science fiction who lived and loved beyond the binary helped her as she developed her own identity.   As always, my questions are in bold text and responses are in regular print.

 I love your fan name, Ithiliana.  Can you tell us how you found or created this name, and what it means to you?

Thank you! I love it too. When I came back into fandom in 2003, in online Lord of the Rings fandom, I needed a pseudonym. My favorite setting in the Lord of the Rings is Ithilien, so all I did was tweak the ending a bit, and there it was. It was an immediate inspiration once I asked myself, what word or term in Tolkien’s work do I want to have as my fan identity. I sometimes joke that my love for Tolkien’s work resulted in me becoming a nature poet, rather than a medievalist, and Ithilien is a big part of the cause. The description of Ithilien is one of the most evocative and detailed of settings in the book (Tolkien said in one of his letters that he was not very good at describing characters, being much more interested in the specifics of the landscape). The pseud felt so “right” that to celebrate my 50th birthday, and becoming full professor, I got a tattoo of it in the Beleriand dialect of Sindarin Elvish (a fellow fan helped me out when I could not learn enough to transliterate it myself—she was a member of LEAF (Learning Elvish Among Friends).  My primary fandom is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s!), so having that connection with the world is important to me.

Ithiliana tattoo

In your essay, you talk about how important Joanna Russ’s work was for you.  Were there other authors that helped you form a positive sense of yourself and your sexuality?  Can you talk a little bit about some of them, and how they affected you?

Joanna Russ’ work was the first and the most important, but, yes, there were other authors. (I am terrible at the “list X favorite” authors because there are so many that I can never limit myself!).

Melissa Scott’s science fiction is incredibly important to me—I cannot remember what year I found her work first (I have a lousy memory for dates), but I remember the first work I found: the Silence Leigh trilogy, set in a future where space travel is done by astrological technology. The protagonist, Silence, marries two men, who are partners, and although there’s little explicit sex, it seemed fairly clear to me that the men were lovers before they met Silence. (Scott has issued a revision of the trilogy with more development of the characters which I have on my Kindle but haven’t had time to read yet!). Scott’s sf futures are so different from the shiny-nice ones that are popular in a lot of media (the squeaky clean image of the Federation): her characters are always from a marginalized group or underclass, either because of class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality (or sometimes all of them), and she has gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* characters as the norm, not as exceptional stand-outs or sidekicks. I cannot recommend Scott too highly (I teach her novels in my classes when I can—too many are out of print, and it’s a shame).

I went head over heels for Diane Duane’s adult fantasy (found years after I’d become a major fan of her Young Wizards series): The Middle Kingdoms (Tale of the Five). The first one (The Door Into Fire) was published in 1979, and the next one did not appear until 1984 (and then the next in 1992). This alternate world fantasy is one in which bisexuality is the norm—plus fire elementals and dragons and group marriages and incredible stuff. I went around dazed and mumbling about bisexual erotics (I defined myself as a bisexual for much of the 80s and into the 90s, and while I now identify as queer, bisexual erotics are awesome and far too seldom found).

Vonda McIntyre’s novels—but especially the Starfarers Quartet—first contact, academics! (not enough academics in sff—which is why I love Barbara Hambly’s fantasy novels though the relationships are primarily heterosexual, but wizardry is pretty much presented as getting a doctorate plus training in martial arts), poly relationships, pacifism—the whole series basically queers most of the sf spaceship/aliens narrative conventions. *Highly* recommended.

There are other authors who write fantastic LGBT characters that I read and admire, whose work does major deconstruction of patriarchal ideologies of gender and sexuality, but these three authors’ works are the ones who characters I most connect with on that deep emotional level. (Some others: Nicola Griffith, Samuel R. Delany, Jewelle Gomez, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson).

You point out that there is more representation of queerness in literature than in TV/Film.  Are there any TV/Film representations that you admire?  Why do you think that is?  If you had total control over the screenplay, casting, and directing of any book, which would you film, and why?  And who would you cast?

I had to Google to find lists of queer characters in TV and film—because while I’d heard of some over the years (Willow, in Buffy; Ivanova in Babylon 5 being the most notable), I could not recall any from my favorite series/films, but I do not *like* a lot of tv/film sff so there’s a lot I don’t watch. I do not enjoy series or films set in high school, so that meant Buffy didn’t make it, though I tried a couple of times, after hearing great presentations on it. And reading over the list that came up (https://www.blastr.com/2010/08/post_34.php) made it pretty clear why—they tend to be men (and mostly white), and (mostly) young (and I think claiming Dumbledore is cheating given that it was announced by Rowling well after the fact). I did enjoy Xena which I began watching fairly late into the series (luckily it was being re-run), but the simply dreadful final season or two (after the infamous “Gab drag”) turned me right off, and I didn’t enjoy the way in which the show (as is the case with a number of the other examples) refused to move much beyond sub-text into text.

Now, as a fan of slash fiction, I’m all about the sub-text, but I’m tired at this late a date of the fact that mainstream media still cannot have queer characters as protagonists, cannot move beyond incredibly limited portrayals of GLBT characters (and the older I get, the less interested I am in the shows about people in their 20s-30s—I was cheering Agents of SHIELD from the start because Coulson! and May! (not Skye and Ward)!

And the reasons—well, they’re all the reasons that Jim highlighted with the project—mainstream media marginalizes and erases almost all people who don’t fit into a very narrow and normative category.

I don’t tend to think to think in film terms, so I cannot imagine trying to cast and direct a film – nor, most of the time, do I think of casting my favorite characters from books.

Could you talk a little bit about how online fandom has supported you?  Do you feel that participating in online fandom has changed your sense of who you are?

Lucking back into fandom in 2003 (ironically, because of meeting and becoming friends with two women at an academic conference) was an incredible event. For some years, I’d been trying to run an sf book club at my university in rural Texas, but it was impossible to get more than a few people to attend (mostly men), and we shared no interests in common. Finding the LiveJournal Lord of the Rings fandom was like stumbling into the most fantastic 24/7 book club ever, where people were writing lengthy screeds about the films, about books, about their lives. I jumped right in and made friends (including a number whom I’ve met offline as well), found people who were interested in all the same things I was. There was the incredible high of getting comments on my fic, sharing cat stories and pictures, talking about going through menopause, talking about sexuality, and a million other things—it’s impossible to list all the fantastic things that happened during that time. I found a whole new sense of energy and optimism, new things to write about (both creatively and in my academic scholarship), and the sense that I was not this weird person who never fit in anywhere.

Fandom is not utopia—but I can say that meeting and engaging with the women I did during the first five years or so changed my life in all sorts of positive ways, giving me a community that simply does not exist in the offline spaces in which I live and work. And I don’t think I am alone in that feeling.

It would also be great if you could give us a little intro to what slash fiction is, and recommend a couple of sites that you feel have good quality stories.

Slash fiction—that could become a book all on its own! The simplest definition is that slash is a type of fan fiction (though there is slash art, and slash vidding) that focuses primarily on a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two characters of the same sex from the original source. The earliest slash stories were about male characters (with Trek fandom being considered the first slash fandom, Kirk and Spock being the first major pairing). Then it becomes very complicated (because of all the types of fan creations that exist, because the term might mean different things in different fandoms, because people tend to assume that the works are uniformly sexually graphic in a way that ignores that vast amount of G and PG rated romance fics, that there is a growing body of stories about female characters, and that slash is not limited to only fic about human beings—there is Transformer slash!, because a whole slew of people were shocked, shocked! to find women writing about male fictional characters in a sexy way and wanted to talk psychology rather than literature, and there are probably even more reasons than I can think of here).

The question of recommend sites with good quality stories is one of those complications: a lot of people assume that fan fiction in general, because it’s written by amateur not professional authors (though there are professional authors who wrote slash, and some who still do) is badly written. And it’s true: there’s a lot of badly written fan fiction and slash out there. (But there’s a lot of really badly written sex by professional authors as well as the Bad Sex Award shows!: http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward).

There is a lot of excellent writing as well, but the aesthetics are not (often or always) the main reason for reading slash: that is, I read only some slash fics in Lord of the Rings fandom (no matter how well they’re written, I’m not interested in fics with Elves as main characters, for example), and pretty much only read in that fandom (though I read and write both Fictional People Slash and Real People Slash—the second being slash fiction about the actors playing the characters). So “good fanfic” is (for me as a reader) much more than the quality of writing (and there are some fics that I can say, objectively, are not very well written that I find incredibly powerful stories because of the content). I have some of my fics archived at Archive of Our Own (https://archiveofourown.org/), and I can recommend that site because it’s large/growing, with lots of fandoms represented on it, and run by fans (as opposed to the monetizing efforts by amazon.com).

I have tried reading some fics in other fandoms that are recommended by friends whose tastes, at least in part, I share, and have found them well written, but not doing what I want in a slash story which is tied deeply to certain kinks and desires, desires I did not have the language to name, or the awareness of having, until I found slash.

A good basic definition: http://fanlore.org/wiki/Slash

 

RPF: http://fanlore.org/wiki/RPF

 

While there tends to be a lot of snickering and dismissive commentary about slash as a genre, and about the queerness of the (mostly) female fandom (but not entirely straight!), some of the news from China recently of women being arrested for writing slash has shown the extent to which, for some, this sort of activity by women is seen as dangerously deviant and needing to be controlled.

 

http://www.dailydot.com/geek/in-china-20-people-women-arrested-for-writing-slash/