The author and queer activist Claudie Arsenault wrote an important, interesting post on an unfortunate trend in representation of asexual characters in fantasy: linking them with death. Especially in the THE books that everyone recommends as asexual representation. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see why, especially for aromantic readers, a link with death is a negative connotation: frankly, done wrong, it’s a bit dehumanizing.
In 2013, I wrote a story about an aromantic asexual Necromancer set in a fantasy city of the Middle East (a bit of Damascus, a bit of Jerusalem, a bit of Antioch) raising a fellow wartime magician — their best friend, a trans man — in a city under siege, specifically to grant him a second chance at life in a body without the interruption of dysphoria. In 2015, after several near-misses, I submitted it to the Myriad Lands anthology and it came out in 2016. I got a paper check (which I still have!) and my authors’ copy of both beautiful volumes, and I danced around, because I was ecstatic to have a prose story out in the world, especially an ownvoices story with both asexual and non-cis representation and 0 white characters (it was not diversity bingo, but getting that clearly across to the reader took some editorial work).
Other things were published in 2015 and 2016 too. They were, maybe, not so positive about death, or the power of friendship enduring beyond death, or friendship being a powerful enough bond to be the humanizing sustenance to keep two embattled people living, not just alive, in a terrible place and time. And into that soup of representation went Backgame. While all reviews of Backgame itself have been positive about its representation and the story itself, it doesn’t exist in a contextless vacuum. In the greater picture of searching story after story for asexual aromantics and finding only death, death, and more death, that representation which, in 2013, was radical to me as an asexual-spectrum person, came to be a bitter pill for other people.
While it is posted at Claudie’s blog as part of the ongoing conversation as a reply, the formal apology I wrote to aromantic readers who are disappointed that Backgame contributes to a sense the world sees them as lifeless and dead is copied here for posterity. If you like friendship stories about dead people getting happy endings and second chances, you’ll probably like Backgame. But this is about people who need something else from their representation, who look at an aro-ace character named “the Necromancer” and go “ugh, really?” For you guys: I’m sorry.
As the author of the short story mentioned in this post (“Backgame” in Myriad Lands) I wanted to issue an apology to any aromantic readers who feel it contributes negatively to stereotypes of aromantics and asexuals in fantasy literature. When I wrote the story in 2013, I had no idea putting a theme of huge personal relevance to me in an own-voices story as an asexual, writing about the kind of friendships that sustain people and my own complex feelings about death, would end up contributing to a harmful pattern of associating aromantics and asexuals with death and lifelessness because of its release date. At the time I wrote it, there WAS no significant canon rep of which to speak, so I edited the story to make asexuality a more explicit theme.
I can’t speak to the aromantic experience, but I can imagine how harmful and disappointing it must be to pick up my story and find the aro-ace character is a necromancer and yet again this is a story about death. If my story left you feeling wounded instead of healed, please accept my deepest apologies. I will try to do better by you next time, aromantic readers, by continuing to write non-romantic humans with full, vibrant relationships and networks as part of my writing. I appreciate all of you who discuss how these themes and archetypes make you feel, and I’m listening & learning from part of the asexual experience I don’t have. Thank you for speaking out, and refusing to settle for less than excellent representation.
Special thanks to Claudie for discussing this trope and the other thought-provoking comments it sparked. I intend to reexamine some of my unpublished work set in the “Ethical Necromancy” universe as that had also been intended to be asexual representation — but maybe that’s not the right place for that particular marginalization, at this exact moment in publication. Maybe when we have more, better asexual and aromantic stories, a few necromancer buddy cop stories won’t hurt. I’m not aromantic (I used to believe I was, but I am not) and it’s more important not to do harm than to excuse my work as different or special because I used to ID that way. Asexual spectrum characters frequently appear in my work, and one is a point of view character in the first of (hopefully many) adventures in the universe of Azemur and Garnatah. I intend to keep writing asexual and aromantic characters– and more importantly, to do better with the next one.
In unrelated news, our Patreon has risen over $90 and we are preparing some of our monthly updates and rewards now to be ready for February. Check it out if you haven’t! Patreon readers will be the first to get to see, well, pretty much everything. One-off tips via PayPal are much appreciated and, like Patreon support, are time spent writing instead of working.
Thanks for reading, and for all your support, and special thanks to those doing the hard work of holding me accountable each and every day.