Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales (on Medium)

child readingMyths, folklore and fairy tales have a big influence on my writing. This is my first foray into non-fiction on Medium: “Why Telling Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales is an Act of Healing”. It’s a mixture of personal experience, writing about writing, and reflections on the impact of queer representation (or lack of) in the stories we grow up with. You can read it for free, it’s not behind a paywall. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too.

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Short Story: Falling, Parts 1-4

black snake scalesI’ve posted all four parts of my new short story, “Falling,” on Medium. Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning and a friend link to all parts below, so you can read them for free if you’re not a Medium member.

His body stretches across the Cour Napoleon, surrounded by the rubble his fall has made, the cracked stone and concrete. If he moves a leg, his foot will crash through the glass pyramid, but he’s still. He must move. He must shrink his vast body to fit the proportions of the mortal world. But he can’t find the will required. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of his wings.

Few in the crowds of tourists can bear it. Some have fallen to their knees and are openly weeping in the street. Most turn away, gather up their loved ones and return home, or the closest haven they can find. One or two hardened souls point their iPhones at him. He sheds tears for them, for their lost awe and wonder, these maimed souls. His tears puddle beneath his face.

A hand touches his arm. A small hand, but he knows it doesn’t belong to a human.

“Gabriel.”

Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. There are also friend links within each part that you can use to navigate by. I hope you enjoy the story.

Check out the hosting publication, The Mad River, for stories and poems of magic and madness. They have a Dark and Holy Writing Challenge coming up.

Short story: Falling on Medium

 

white feathersGabriel has fallen to Earth and God has left his throne. Read Part 1 of Falling.

I’ve just had the first two parts of my short story, Falling, published in The Mad River on Medium. It’s four parts in total and will all be published in the next few days. I’ll stick links to the whole thing up here when it’s finished. (Medium have created new friend links to get past the paywall, so I can now share those here, but the first part is free, anyway.)

Falling is a story of queer angels, old gods, syncretism, identity and social media tribalism. Some sort of hybrid mythic sci-fi mix. (I’m not very good at sticking in one genre, but I’ve really blown the envelope up here.) I hope you enjoy it. Most of my short stories have been coming out pretty long this year, so this is a bit of experiment in posting a longer work in parts, to see how it goes.

Queer Book Club: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

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YA coming of age novel about Pen, a Portuguese-American girl who is struggling for a place to fit, being a masculine girl and a lesbian. She hangs out with Colby and some other boys, but Colby’s brand of macho bullshit starts to grate when Pen talks to Olivia, and gets an insight into the harm he does to the girls he picks up and throws aside. Then, when Pen finds Blake, a girl she really likes, she has to define her own way of loving girls and negotiate her own sense of masculinity. In the background, her traditional Portuguese family are making life hard for her and her brother, Johnny, and nothing they do is good enough.

This is a quick read, and pulled me in from the start, especially the creepy friendship with Colby. Girard does a good job of portraying a really messed up power dynamic there. I could relate to tolerating misogyny as a teen, in some mistaken attempt to compensate for gender issues. Pen’s unreconstructed approach to her gender and sexuality stuff felt realistic and believable, and Girard highlights, through the action of the story, a lot of problems with traditional messed up gender roles and relations. Colby is on a massive power trip, and uses women like objects. Olivia ends up pregnant, with no support. Pen’s parents want her to fit in and not attract trouble—to act like a “nice girl”. Throughout, Girard plays with the different ideas of what it means to “man-up”. Even Johnny, Pen’s supportive older brother, still has some stuff to work through around solving problems with violence.

I had a small misgiving that a lot of the issues raised stay implicit, bubbling below the surface of the action, whereas by the end, I wanted some of the characters to be having a more explicit dialogue. I don’t expect a 16 year old character to have everything sussed, but given she goes looking for info online at one point in the story, I would have thought Pen might trip over some gender or feminist theory along the way. I guess, I felt like a bunch of problems were thrown up in the story, but only the most tentative road-map is offered out of them. At one point, Colby sexually assaults Pen, and that’s brushed over and never really named for what it is, even though it’s not shown to be okay. I think there’s a danger in being too subtle about some of this stuff.

My only other misgiving was, the students all attend a Catholic school, and I would have expected at least some of them to have internalised more guilt (about gender, sexuality and abortion). Those internal obstacles are not so easily jumped or reconciled, particularly at 16 when school and family are your whole world. Don’t get me wrong—the characters do have plenty of internalised prejudices, but the religious side is given a very light touch. Maybe there wasn’t space to fully explore those aspects. It was a niggle, rather than a deal breaker.

Overall, I think this book is on point flagging up problems, showing how misogyny and toxic masculinity function in practice, but doesn’t completely follow through with pointing the way to solutions. The characters are well realised, and it’s an enjoyable and compelling read. The relationship between Blake and Pen is sweet and healthy, and there’s no contrived narrative drama thrown in the way to create tension, which I liked. Blake is comfortable with being bi, which is also cool. It’s interesting that Pen never gives herself a gender label, other than girl. I’ve seen a few reviews stick different gender label on her, but it’s not there in the text, so I’m not going to. It’s testament to the complexity of this book that it’s been an absolute pain to review, and I’ve ended up saying so much.

Queer Book Club: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

lies-we-tell-ourselves-coverLies We Tell Ourselves is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1959 Virginia. It follows the story of Sarah and Linda, both seniors, who are on opposing sides of the battle to desegregate the town’s high school. Sarah is one of 9 black students starting in the previously all white high school, whereas Linda is the daughter of the local newspaper editor, a staunch and outspoken segregationist. At first, the two girls seem irrevocably opposed to one another, but are thrown together to complete a school French project. Despite the violence and bullying surrounding the new black students, despite their divisions, the two girls fall in love.

The novel is told from the points of view of both Sarah and Linda. It’s a heavy read. The first section, which is all from Sarah’s point of view, follows in close-up the horror of starting high school faced with so much opposition. The first walk up to the door of the school on the first day is a gruelling battle through racial taunts and missiles, while the police look on and do nothing. Every school day, every lesson, every lunchtime, every journey down a corridor, becomes fraught with danger and humiliation for the students. It quickly becomes clear that in order for this historic change to be made beyond a statute book or court, the students will pay with their physical and mental wellbeing. And things go from bad to worse as the strain takes its toll. Although the novel is told from both points of view, it felt more like Sarah’s story than Linda’s, and I think that’s a good thing.

This is such a powerful book. Talley captures the experiences of Sarah in such detail, and it’s painful to follow her, even though she’s incredibly strong through it all. Linda also goes on a journey, from blind prejudice to realisation that her father’s message of racial superiority, and the violence he brings even into his own home, are not the right way, even though she’s lived with them all her life. It’s definitely an eye-opening novel, if this is a period of history you don’t know a lot about. And if it is, Talley still makes it personal.

The story looks at the choices available to young women at the time, and both girls have to take control of their own lives before they can figure out what they want for the future. They must also come to terms with religious teachings that tell them their love for each other is wrong. I liked that there is nothing mushy about their relationship, nothing overly sentimental. Really, the romance takes a back seat to the history and self-discovery. Love isn’t going to fix everything, they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

Even though this is a tough read, there’s hope and love. Talley has a particular gift for creating powerful moments, both of horror and joy, and I ended up in tears more than once. Not a book, or a historical lesson, I’m going to forget in a hurry.

Writing Trans Characters

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I had this idea I wanted to put together a guide to writing trans characters. But the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t really sure such a thing is possible. There are an infinite number of possible trans characters and trans stories, and having that variety represented is as important as anything else. So I’m just going to write about what I’d like to see in trans characters, and maybe it’ll be useful to others.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had recently about writing trans characters:

Transition isn’t the only story. Much as I loved The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a kid, I don’t want to read it over and over for the rest of my life. I want to know what awesome adventures that beautiful butterfly has when it’s done stuffing it’s face with saveloy and fruit. For me, it’s really important to tell stories that aren’t just about transition. Part of the reason for that is because sometimes it feels like there is no life beyond transition, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only trans person who’s wondered if they even have a place in the world. Stories of what happens next are more important than telling the same transition story over and over. (Also, as a side note, trans stories that read like surgical manuals are particularly tedious. The few programmes about trans people I saw on TV growing up were mostly just about surgical procedures. It scared the hell out of me.)

Trans people could exist in any environment or genre, not just realism, Bildungsroman or high school. Trans people could have adventures in space, or kill dragons, or fight clockwork robots, or solve crime, or get eaten by eldritch horrors, or act as a spy during the 18th century, or really just anything. Having looked pretty hard, I’ve noticed some more genre fiction emerging with trans characters. Which is really cool. But I’d love to see more of that stuff, and just more variety in general. I read pretty widely, in genre and literary fiction, and I want to be able to give my book geekness full expression.

Trans people don’t exist for non-trans people to get their tragedy jollies. Does the story really present a believable human being, or is the character really just an object which serves some cathartic process for others? I’m not saying the story has to be happy (I don’t write happy fiction), or the character has to be the main character, but does the character’s transness exist only as a symbol of something else, or to milk an emotional response? (Clue: if people say things like “her tragic struggle for acceptance taught me so much about what it means to really be your true self”, you’ve probably written something overly sentimental and should try harder next time.)

Trans people aren’t always part of the mainstream. Not all trans people want to be. Trans people can be queer in different ways. Not all trans people care about passing, (some do, and that’s fine too). Not everyone transitions, and if they do, their transition is unique to them, and doesn’t necessarily fit some formula. Trans people don’t always fit into a binary model of gender. Trans people can be part of subcultures other than LGBT ones, and might also be part of a queer social network.

Trans is not the whole character. This should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t—being trans is just one part of a big and complex character picture. It can dominate a person’s life at times, and at others, become irrelevant, but the point is, it’s just one part of a person. You’ve got to write all the other parts as well, or you have a flimsy character.

I have a sequel coming up to my vampire novella, with a trans character in. And my plan is the third and final part of the trilogy will be from his point of view. He’s gay and goth, and a vampire (and kinky as hell). So I’ve hopefully managed to fulfil some of my own wishes for a decent trans character.

Recommendations for good trans fiction welcome.

Queer Classics: Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris cover

Continuing with my Isherwood burn, I read this and Goodbye to Berlin as part of a collection. This was my favourite of the two (though I might get around to reviewing the other one as well).  This is one of Isherwood’s pre-war Berlin novels (this one published in 1935) which capture his experiences of the city at the time leading up to WW2. William Bradshaw, an English man living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with Arthur Norris whilst on a train to the city. Norris, with his strange manners, ill-fitting wig and suspicious passport, intrigues the somewhat detached and sarcastic Bradshaw.

The whole novel has a light, satirical quality to it which I really enjoyed. Bradshaw’s detachment is almost ridiculous at times, and eventually leads him into hot water (I won’t give any more away). It’s really the humorous observations and characterisations that were the highlight of the book for me. Isherwood plays with Bradshaw’s youthful detachment in contrast to the very serious, and sometimes violent, political backdrop playing out around him. Norris is a serial fabricant, incapable of facing or telling the truth about his business dealings, his past or his financial realities; he’s a really amusing character.

Likely because of the time it was written (and the semi-autobiographical nature of his stories at this time), sexuality is treated quite coyly. One of the characters, a German aristocrat, Baron Pregnitz, is quite clearly gay, but Isherwood is much more vague about Bradshaw’s sexuality. Although at one point, Bradshaw uses his intimacy with Pregnitz to lure him into an intrigue on behalf of Norris.

Mr Norris is enjoyable as satire, and an interesting insight into a place and time that had such a profound impact on the 20th century and beyond. The plot twist for me wasn’t much of a surprise, but that didn’t really mar my enjoyment.

Cissy Meldrum

cissy meldrum

Cissy Meldrum (c) BBC

If you found yourself drowning in The Well of Loneliness, here’s the lighter side of 1920s cross-dressing lesbians. A fun genderfuck Friday. Cissy Meldrum (played by Catherine Rabett) was a character in the BBC TV comedy, You Rang M’Lord, and probably my earliest gender-bending icon. The show ran from 1988-1993, and was shown in a primetime family slot. You Ran M’Lord was set in the 1920s and featured the lives of the aristocratic Meldrum family, and their servants—a kind of comedy version of earlier drama series, Upstairs, Downstairs. Cissy was a passionate idealist, had a long term girlfriend, and always dressed in stylish masculine clothing, usually complete with monocle. 

There’s a long tradition of cross-dressing in British comedy, from music hall acts, to pantomime, but as time’s gone on, the characters tend to be men cross-dressing, so Cissy was a rare treat. Even though the whole thing was played for laughs, Cissy was still a great character: strong, feminist, refusing to conform to her family’s conservative desires for her. It’s cool to think that the character was included in such a mainstream family show. I’m sure there were other kids like me who appreciated an early queer icon in their lives.

Queer Classics: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness cover

The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who prefers to dress in a masculine fashion, and who loves women. It is perhaps the first coming out story published (let me know of others, if I’m wrong), and sets down the pattern for that particularly kind of Bildungsroman that many other coming out stories would follow, charting Stephen’s life from childhood to adulthood, as she negotiates her way around her particular sexuality and gender identity.

I read The Well of Loneliness as part of my research for the 1920s novel I’m currently working on. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a chore, and while it definitely does provide valuable historical insight into how sexuality was viewed at the time  (1928), it’s not a book I would recommend reading for entertainment. So, a rare negative review from me, but Radcliffe Hall isn’t still around to care. Expect scare quotes.

It’s an iconic book, thrust into the limelight by an obscenity trial at the time of publishing. The book received support from writers at the time on point of principle (including E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), but when Hall asked them to support the book for its literary merit, they refused.

I found it a tricky read because it’s just not very well written: the style is old fashioned and stodgy for the time, considering who her literary peers were. It’s also painfully sentimental, which again seems very old fashioned for the period. I read the Wordsworth Classics edition (pictured, with lovely Tamara Lempicka cover), which has a helpful introduction by Dr Esther Saxey, placing the book in its historical and cultural context. Saxey suggests that it’s impossible to separate The Well of Loneliness from the development of lesbian identities, as it was so influential.

The book is interesting from the point of view that it captures a time when conceptions of sexuality and gender identity were in a state of flux, with conflicting theories being presented by psychologists and sexologists. Hall favours the idea of the “congenital invert” put forward by Havelock Ellis, a sexologist at the time. Previous sexologists had considered this condition to be degenerative, but Ellis saw it as natural and not harmful, and he even wrote an introduction to the novel for Hall. It’s impossible to really draw comparisons between this historical conception and our moderns concepts of identity, as the idea of the “invert” ties gender and sexuality together, and considers same sex love to be a feature of either masculine or feminine biology. Stephen is extremely masculine in appearance, and likes to do traditionally male activities, and this masculinity is seen as inherently tied to her love of women. The love of women is borne out of her gender identity, effectively. So in that regard, she falls somewhere in between a butch lesbian and a straight transgender man, and the story reads as much like the history of one as the other, in terms of modern labels. Hall saw Ellis’s ideas as liberating in comparison to previous notions of physical degeneracy or mental illness, but it’s not always completely clear in the novel that Hall has left those notions behind. Hall also draws on her Catholic beliefs, sometimes presenting Stephen as a martyr.

As a story, it’s a pretty miserable read. Hall hoped to write the book as an apology for the “invert”, so that people might accept them. But pity is the main emotion called for. “Inverts” are shown to be unusually sensitive, not because of any social stigma, but apparently because of their biology. Stephen spends a lot of time in periods of dark depression, and even when she finds love, seems largely to loathe herself and feel guilty for warping the life of her lover. Hall defined herself as a “congenital invert”, and it doesn’t read as a story written by someone who is at all at peace with their own sense of self.

So, read Well of Loneliness if you’re really interested in the history of queer identities, but don’t expect a wildly entertaining ride.