Backgame, Revisited

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.

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Fiction Sale! ‘The Desert, Blooming’

I’m excited to announce I’ve sold my short story ‘The Desert, Blooming’, to the Sunvault Anthology of Solarpunk and Eco-Fiction. When the project was first announced, one of the editors sent me an encouraging message on twitter inviting me to throw my hat into the slush pile — much to my excitement, I had already been working on a story concept for a larger universe that fit neatly into the idea of Eco-Fiction, and after a few false-starts, have produced a story I’m incredibly proud of. Many thanks to EP Beaumont, India Valentin, and the editors themselves, who worked with me to create a satisfying exploration of an alternate-future where modern afforestation techniques being pioneered in sub-Saharan Africa and Israel are an important part of the reclamation of an alternate-universe Sahara in North Africa.

This science fiction story is a character prequel to the first novel in the Azemur universe, a magical reimagining of the ancient cultures of the near East, and the collision of religions, cultures, and peoples of medieval al-Andalus. If you follow me on twitter, you might have heard me refer to the novel as the “time travel story” but while the story creates to the greater whole, there’s neither time travel, nor magic, in this short.

Excitingly, this will mark the second time I appear with my wife, India Valentin, whose poem about remaking Israel and keeping sacred plant traditions of Judaism alive is also part of the anthology. When the final Table of Contents and pre-order info for Sunvault are announced, you’ll hear about it here!

In other fiction news, “Backgame” now comes in e-book form as part of Myriad Lands II for only $3.99! (Amazon, or DriveThruFiction for other formats). If you’ve been holding out for a digital copy, I hope you enjoy this fascinating compilation of short stories. You’re getting almost 20 stories for $4! (UK friends can order through Guardbridge Books)

If you’d like to support my writing, please consider tipping me.

Available Now: Myriad Lands 2 in print!

I have had the wonderful opportunity to be part of the first anthology from Guardbridge Books for their two-part anthology Myriad Lands. My story “Backgame” is now available in print as part of Myriad Lands Vol II: Tales From Many Lands (e-book coming soon).

“Backgame” is a very special story to me because it features multiple types of Own Voices representation I think highly under-represented in general: an asexual necromancer and a trans revenant and their platonic friendship, in a magical city that draws on the rich history of the Middle East.

“Backgame” is a love letter of admiration and solidarity to siege survivors and victims: the medieval women of my BA research; the survivors and victims of Russian sieges of WWII whose writing taught me to be a poet and helped me survive dark periods of my life. It is also for the refugees, victims, and survivors of contemporary siege violence in the Middle East, who I stand in solidarity with among their courage and suffering. It is my first short story to appear in print and I am thrilled beyond belief this story has found such a perfect home.

I share the table of contents with some incredible authors:

Phenderson Djeli Clark – “Redemption for Adanna”
Adrian Tchaikovsky – “The Language of Flowers”
Neil Williamson – “Darkday Night”
Terry Jackman – “Incense Shrine”
Tom Fletcher – “The Rounds”
Mame Bougouma Diene – “Night Child”
Kelda Critch (Deborah Walker) – “Song of the Ancient Queens”
Alter S. Reiss – “Shadowslain”
Samuel Marzioli – “The Last Great Failing of the Light”
Amy Power Jansen – “Life for Death”
Kristie Olley – “The Beauty of the Dance”
Lev Mirov – “Backgame”
Bejamin Jacobsin – “Hollow”
Meghan Hutchins – “Poet-Scholars of the Necropolis”
Emily McCosh – “Winged”
Katherine Quevedo – “Venom in the Cloud Forest”
J. W. Hall – “The Truth in Fire”
Melissa Mead – “God Daughter”

This is a very special two-part collection, and I encourage you to look at the first book in the collection, set in real places, Myriad Lands Vol I: Around The World.

Working with David Stokes, the editor, was a dream; his helpful edits were easy and painless and helped the story become what it really wanted to be, and his professionalism in keeping me in the loop made the experience painless and wonderful. As I await the e-book edition to become available for those of you who prefer e-books, you’ll see more exciting opportunities to buy this story, including buying both volumes at a discounted price.

I love this story with all my heart, I’m so happy my first fiction publication is in an anthology like this one, and I cannot wait for you to read it & the other stories. It’s exciting to be part of the future of fantasy in an anthology so focused on representing decentered authors and experiences.

A small but exciting and half-forgotten thing I forgot to announce at the time: EP Beaumont interviewed me for Muse Of Research: Food As Worldbuilding a while ago and those of you who read “Backgame” may see the influence of some of the recommended cookbooks listed in the role food plays in this story…

“Death by Three Senses” out today & other news!

Strange Horizons has published my poem Death By Three Senses today. I’m THRILLED this poem has made it out into the world, it was an impulse submission of a poem I found tucked away in an unusual spot (at the bottom of a document where I had been doing finances) and is based on an important event in the mythological world of my poetry, told from the point of view of a necromancer who sacrifices everything to save a man he loves and almost gets it right.

Almost being the key word that drives this poem. It is, like many of my poems, an attempt to invert the “tragic queers” trope — the two men who drive this poem find a way, even if it is an uncomfortable and awkward one, to be together and not to let death be the end. It is, in a way, a sort of portal fantasy, too — in the mythic landscape of my poems, death is the doorway to other universes, a one-way trip that can take you anywhere.

Strange Horizons has also bought another one of my poems, “My Heart Is Set On Wandering”, set to come out later this year. It is about the history of Filipinos in Louisiana, colonialization, and my own family history. It is set in the “Ethical Necromancy” universe, where several short stories I’m working on have also been set, in which dead spirits and revenants reappeared in the early 2000s in the “Great Awakening” and the rest of the world must somehow cope.

I also found out that “The Woman Sings Her Marriage Into Being” was nominated for the short form Rhysling. I am so thrilled that this happy love song has resonated with so many people, especially since its ultimate roots are secretly Tolkien fanfiction. Two Rhysling nominations is a TOTAL surprise to me, and it means the world to me that the discerning readers of science fiction and fantasy poetry have chosen two poems of mine that are about death, love, and happiness for gay and lesbian people usually denied it as their nominations from last year’s body of my published work. Thank you.

Finally, though this deserves its own post, I have sold my first piece of fiction! “Backgame”, which is about a necromancer in a magical siege who brings a friend back to life, has been sold to the second volume of Myriad Lands by Guardbridge Books! When I know more about when the anthologies will be coming out, you will hear more! “Backgame” being my first fiction sale is especially exciting to me because it stars a trans narrator and centers on his friendship with an asexual woman, and there’s just not enough queer friendship representation, period.

If I had any more news to fit in this post, I don’t know that I could! Thank you for your continuing support. Because I am currently in a precarious financial position (described by my wife here), I have instituted  a tip page to my paypal (you can write in any amount in the box). I have discovered mold in my apartment is making my wife very ill & we need to move basically immediately (literally, we were in the ER yesterday for emergency treatment, this happy post is very weird to write) and if my poems or activism speaks to you, any money shared to me is being used to feed my wife and I as we attempt to use what is left of her student loans to move to a new mold-free home.