Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
“Why queer spec-fic?”
Panelist Nicole Kimberling asked this, the central question of the “Gaylaxy Quest: Exploring Queer Fantasy and Science Fiction” panel at GeekGirlCon ‘14, and our intrepid panel of sci-fi and fantasy authors devoted the next hour to answering it.
“Queers are wonderful world-builders, by necessity and joy,” said Amber Dawn. Queer people have invented their own communities, culture, pronouns, and sex acts. They deal in subversive narratives, so the common spec-fic (speculative fiction) themes of outsider vs. culture naturally resonate.
In Dawn’s own writing, horror was where she started to fight the good fight. The dichotomy between the typical horror tropes of the “slut” (who has sex with a boy and dies early in the story) and the pure “final girl” seemed irrelevant to her as a queer writer, and she has pursued this in her literary career–such as the anthology she edited, Fist of the Spider-Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire, in which, as she put it, “Queer sluts live!”
“Spec-fic is about breaking out of boundaries,” added J. Tullos Hennig. Growing up, she said, even being female felt like a chore, a boundary to break out of. Queer spec-fic is “just another boundary.”
One of the advantages of addressing queer themes via sci-fi and fantasy, said Kimberling, is that writers can approach much more delicate subjects by abstracting them.
People will accept ‘weird’ if it’s another world, put in panelist Ginn Hale, and she gave the example of an alien species that changes genders (as in the 1969 Ursula LeGuin classic The Left Hand of Darkness). By approaching the subject obliquely, spec-fic writers use aliens and other non-human characters to address human themes.
Another of the panelists, Langley Hyde, tried writing contemporary and lit fic, but it “didn’t seem very realistic”. It didn’t reflect the world she lives in, surrounded by queer community. She and her friends challenged themselves to find some books featuring lesbians, and they weren’t readily found, even as recently as ten years ago.
Hyde pinpoints fandom as one source of the current shift toward addressing queer topics in fiction, especially spec-fic. Fanfic, where many writers flex their literary muscles before branching out into original fiction (or fanfic-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off), outright encourages queer takes on fiction.
The panelists highlighted the outsider feeling that many spec-fic writers get when brushing up against mainstream literary circles–a great parallel for many queer people’s experiences, and a hint at why so many queer writers use fantastical themes and settings to explore their experiences. Amber Dawn teaches at a “scrappy community college” where students get to write the spec-fic they want, and also at a prestigious college where her colleagues think it’s not possible to teach this genre.
Ginn Hale asked the audience whether anyone was doing creative writing in a college, and got a smattering of raised hands. Then, “Anyone writing for themselves?” Half the audience raised their hands.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” said Hale.
In a crowd of sci-fi and fantasy fans, most of whom were queer, it surprised no-one, least of all the panelists who were all professional writers, that most of them declined to fight that particular uphill battle, and had long since bade the decision to write on their own time and for their own benefit. Both aspects of their work–the queerness, and the spec-fic-ness–are regarded with distaste, suspicion, or derision by many in mainstream society.
Langley Hyde had the experience of having to present her work to her writing group as magical realism rather than fantasy so that people would take it seriously enough even to read it.
Amber Dawn has been able to explore a more holistic identity in writing spec-fic, she says, contrasting that with the editor who told her to “tone down the queerness” in her own memoir!
J. Tullos Hennig pointed at the “mainstream” writers who dabble in sci-fi or fantasy, but who refuse that label, even going so far as to get upset when it’s pointed out. (The panelists didn’t list any examples, but one off the top of my head is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which reviewers go out of their way not to describe as science fiction, even though it addresses the popular sci-fi themes of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.)
So what are some changes to the world of spec-fic? asked Nicole Kimberling.
“This panel exists, for one thing,” said Ginn Hale to a laugh from the audience.
Far more people are open (about their queerness, as well as their spec-fic writing). The wider cultural discourse is about whether to recognise same-sex marriage, while at spec-fic conferences we have discussions about whether someone can be multiple genders.
The panel then opened up the floor to audience questions.
Q: Lots of current gay stories have sexuality as an afterthought. Is that a goal?
A: Maybe for some writers and readers. However, lots of readers want some sex just to be sure it’s queer!
Q: How do you reconcile the writing of an author whose work you admire, but who is problematic in their real life? Examples: Orson Scott Card (a noted homophobe) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (an author who identifies as feminist and writes feminist fiction, but who sexually abused her daughter).
A: It’s a very daunting question. Everyone has to do what they feel comfortable doing. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s letters helped Hennig in her writing–thirty years ago.
In literature class, students have to analyze authorial intent, but as a writer that’s often not relevant. What the writer put in may be completely different to what you take away from a work of fiction. You can know someone is problematic and still like their work, but everyone draws the line in different places.
Q: Fandom is all about reading slashy (queer) subtext into mainstream media, and yet writers can work really hard to create original queer fiction and never get off the ground. Why the disconnectekGirlCon
A: It’s not the Age of the Book. We could counter this by starting book clubs, and building communities around books. Look for queer-specialist publishers.
Q: What’s still missing from queer fiction?
A: Representation and diversity, particularly characters of color. Seek out QTPoC (Queer and Trans People of Color). Encourage genres like post-colonial spec-fic.
It would be nice to pick up more books outside the specialist LGBT section of the bookstore, and see queer characters.
Mass media is all about “box it, sell it, make money.” Small presses are the ones pushing the boundaries.
Q: What’s the best approach to writing queer characters (and characters with other marginalized identities) as someone with relative privilege?
A: Be respectful, do research, and give humanity to every character in your book. And after all that, respect that some queer readers will still want queer stories from queer writers.
Finally, here’s a list of recommendations, of both books and authors, that came up in the panel. Some of these are works of classic literature, which only proves, as J. Tullos Hennig put it, that “We’ve been doing this in spec-fic for centuries.”
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
When Fox is a Thousand, by Larissa Lai
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
Gossamer Axe, by Gael Baudino
Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Octavia Butler’s (especially her short stories, eg. Blood Child)
Samuel R. Delany
The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, a webcomic by E.K. Weaver
O Human Star, webcomic by Blue Delliquanti
The Legend of Bold Riley, a print comic by Leia Weathington and various artists