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Polenth Blake lives where the mushrooms bloom in autumn. Polenth's first collection, Rainbow Lights, is out in the ocean somewhere.

Bogi Takács is an agender Hungarian Jewish person who's currently living in the US. Eir speculative fiction and poetry have been published in many online and print venues—for a few stories relevant to the discussion above, e recommends "This Shall Serve As a Demarcation"; "Forestspirit, Forestspirit"; and "Three Partitions." You can also visit Bogi's website or find em on Twitter, where e also posts diverse story and poem recommendations.

This conversation was conducted by email in December 2015.


Bogi: Is there an issue in current speculative fiction about gender and sexuality that you think is underdiscussed? I'm not asking about "the most important issue," because I'm not sure these can be set in order of importance, just one particular issue that you are concerned about.

Polenth: There was a time when I would have said non-binary gender, but that has improved somewhat. When I started out, I'd get rejections about non-binary characters on the lines of "men/women don't behave like that" or "I couldn't tell if they were a man or woman." General awareness has increased since then.

What still isn't discussed as much is asexuality. This sometimes comes up as a separate topic, but people are rarely thinking it when they think sexuality. That means in sexuality discussions, I've had people tell me highly sexual people are more creative and naturally write better stories. It's not exactly encouraging for asexuals trying to make it in the field.

It's not a surprise people think that, as there's a strong stereotype that being asexual means a person is incapable of emotion and unable to have any sort of meaningful relationship with others. I'd say they're presented like robots, except that science fiction robots often have more emotion and can discover themselves without sex. That's something asexual characters rarely get to have.

This leads to situations where a book gets praised for its handling of gender and sexuality, when it has an asexual villain who only learns why killing people is wrong because they stop being asexual. We've still got a lot of discussion to go before people really understand why that's hurtful.

The core issue is such discussions sometimes try to shift what is acceptable to a new fixed point, rather than positively representing the full diversity of experiences. Are there any areas you feel are rarely represented well (or at all)?

Bogi: I agree with what you said about asexuality, and to an extent I also see this related to agender or unspecified gender—where characters often end up being either robots or aliens, and presented as essentially unfathomable. Intersex people are even more underrepresented in SF, and often abysmally portrayed; there also seems to be much less awareness about this than about trans issues. Many people do not really understand the difference and overlap between intersex and trans people, and this is certainly reflected in stories. It seems to me that it is more and more acceptable to talk about being trans as an author, but it is still not very acceptable to talk about being intersex. The only out intersex SF author I know of, Raven Kaldera, is not active in the online SF community.

One other, but related, thing that really concerns me in SF about gender, sex, or sexuality in general is when a writer describes something that exists among humans as essentially alien or artificially introduced. This can be anything from being asexual, non-binary, intersex, or it can even involve specific sexual practices. I have seen some discussion where people claimed that in short stories, it can be much harder to present a sufficient amount of worldbuilding to make it clear that humans also do what the aliens do (just maybe at different percentages). I think this can be established in one or two sentences, the writer just needs to be cunning; I've definitely seen stories where the focus was on off-world situations, but the authors made it clear to me as the reader that they were aware that their topic already existed back on Earth, among garden-variety humans. It does warm my heart even if it's a very minor detail. It can be easy to make marginalized people a bit less marginalized even if that's mostly tangential to the story at hand.

I think what you're saying about "a new fixed point" is really accurate. I'm just not sure what can be done to make people realize that it's not enough to only include the currently fashionable marginalized group, but that there is a vast amount of experiences and identities that routinely go ignored. Do you have any ideas?

Polenth: That's tricky, as the main people talking about such things are in the groups being ignored. I've seen the issue of aliens having many genders, whilst humans can only have two, discussed a lot of times. I've not seen a lot of action due to that.

All of this can encourage people to stay quiet about their identities. I was very aware that being open would reduce the number of opportunities and increase the number of very personal questions about my medical history and sex life. It's not a climate where I'd expect many intersex people to be open about it. They also get the intrusive questions. Plus other misconceptions, like not being aware that intersex people can be any gender. It's exhausting to constantly field basic questions.

There's also the issue of personal safety, where some authors need to keep certain things hidden from family and employers.

I think a lot of this isn't understood outside of the people it impacts. Like when a privileged person decides to tell me about their friends who share my identity, when that isn't public knowledge. It's a breach of trust that could put someone in danger, but it's treated like a fun fact.

One thing we can do about it is support each other. Helping marginalised authors survive in the industry will eventually change the direction of the stories told. I'm not convinced there is a way to make privileged authors listen in sufficient numbers, until those stories are so common they can't ignore it.

We've talked a fair bit about things we don't like seeing, so what about some things we do? What sort of stories would you like to see get more recognition?

Bogi: Aliette de Bodard just had a related blog post talking about how perfectly human aspects of culture or language are called alien. Sadly, this seems to happen with any kind of marginalization, not just gender.

On a more cheerful note, I really like complex stories that tackle multiple aspects of gender, or gender and some other marginalization, but these are hard to find because the longer the work, the less the diversity of authors and of editors/publishers—at least that's how it seemed to me when I was making the Diverse Editors List last year. And when it comes to majority people writing minority people, I find that the results are often disappointing.

At the short story length recently, I really liked A. Merc Rustad's "How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps" in Scigentasy, which tackles many complex topics like mental illness, asexuality—especially in relation to robot tropes—and suicide. I also enjoyed Nino Cipri's "The Shape of My Name" on Tor.com, and I would also like to mention your "Never the Same" in Strange Horizons and "On Shine Wings" in Unlikely Story, but we might want to discuss these separately later on!

When it comes to novelettes, I thought "Wine" by Yoon Ha Lee in Clarkesworld was rich and dark, well worth a read—also by not shying away from discrimination in the future, a way to reflect on the present.

Further, I really appreciated Rose Lemberg's "Geometries of Belonging" and "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds," both in Beneath Ceaseless Skies earlier this year, but I might be just a little bit biased in favor of my family members. . .

I don't find as much relevant stuff at novel length, sadly. There is an increasing amount of trans-focused literary fiction mostly put out by Topside—I especially loved Nevada by Imogen Binnie. There is also more and more trans romance by LGBT romance publishers. But very little SF. I was just trying to start a list of trans #ownvoices stories—this Twitter hashtag was started by Corinne Duyvis to focus on writing about marginalized groups by members of marginalized groups. I did start the list and several people have added works to it (it's still open for new additions!), but this process also resulted in many questions. For example, if a trans person writes a story about a different kind of trans person, is that an #ownvoices story? How do privilege dynamics play into this? A friend suggested that this might result in a large amount of stories by white trans people writing about trans people of color, by trans people who are not women writing about trans women, etc. But so far the list doesn't seem to me to be skewed in that direction; then again, it's also possible that I'm missing whole swathes of stories! What do you think of these issues? Do you have any recommendations to share?

Polenth: The #ownvoices thing is something I've struggled with, as it depends how you're deciding someone is in a group. I've written stories that share broader groups with me, and often share more than one, but aren't exactly the same. The result is I wouldn't add myself to a list on the basis that I'm not sure if I count. But I wonder if someone who is privileged in a lot of ways would be concerned about this, or would just add themselves anyway.

We read a lot of the same short story markets. I also really liked A. Merc Rustad's story. This links in to something we previously mentioned. If everyone like you is shown as being non-human, it's an understandable reaction to identify with being non-human. There aren't many stories that tackle that. Also a rather different thing to presenting someone as non-human as a way of showing them as inferior.

Anthologies also tend be more diverse, as they're mainly produced by small publishers. There are some with gender and sexuality as the main themes, like Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction. Also some combine it with other themes, such as Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. I find anthologies a mixed bag, but I'll often find a few new authors.

The novel market does lag behind. It's not just what gets published, but what gets advertising, shelf space in the bookshop, and all the rest. It's hard to break publishing out of the idea that they have the gay book this season, so they don't need another one. And quite often that book will be written by someone straight and have the gay characters die tragically in the end. So there aren't too many books I'd recommend. I have enjoyed Malinda Lo's books, which have lesbian and bisexual protagonists.

One thing that often gets raised when novels are discussed is self-publishing. Though it's true it does open up what can be published, the problem of what readers are willing to try is not removed. The titles that sell don't tend to be ones with a diversity of characters. There can be exceptions. Sarah Diemer has done well with lesbian young adult (though it's also notable that there are more promotional opportunities for gay and lesbian work in general, such as Amazon having actual categories). But overall, I'm left feeling the books I really want do exist, yet never get recommended. So how do I find them?

Something that particularly bothers me is what happens when someone self-publishes a bigoted mess. When a certain book came out that had a dystopian society where evil gay people oppressed poor straight people, it got a lot more attention than most self-published books with positive portrayals. People who wouldn't usually consider self-published books were reviewing that one. Critiquing bad examples can be a good thing to do, but not at the expense of promoting good examples.

What are your thoughts on how we can find, and help promote, the stories we want to see?

Bogi: My solution to finding authors and works is not very sophisticated: it involves running around in circles online and yelling loudly about the stuff I liked, then begging people for recommendations. Twitter and Goodreads have both worked out for me reasonably well, but I do feel aggravated when I discover something that answers all my wishes and yet I haven't seen it mentioned at all. It always makes me wonder how much stuff passes me by, even though I read (and request!) everything from major-press releases to small-press to self-pub. A recent and very underpromoted book I enjoyed was Craig Laurance Gidney's latest short story collection, Skin Deep Magic, published by Rebel Satori Press. The author is a gay Black man, the collection was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards, and yet I saw almost no SF people aware of this book or promoted it—even in diversity contexts.

There has been a lot of effort lately about diverse recommendations in YA and MG, but not all that much in fiction for adults. There are a few blogs I follow and appreciate, like Intellectus Speculativus (mostly novel reviews), and Quick Sip Reviews (short fiction and poetry), and I've recently discovered Shira Glassman's queer and SF novel reviews. I wish there were something like We Need Diverse Books, but for a wider age range.

When it comes to recommendation engines, I think LibraryThing has the best algorithms out of everything I've tried (on multiple occasions it literally managed to guess what books I picked up at the library on a whim—I suspect it knows me better than I do myself), but so few of my friends are on LibraryThing that these days I mostly use Goodreads. Also, many of the automated recommendations on any site require a quite large upfront time investment of adding your library or purchases, to acquire reasonable accuracy.

To approach this from a different angle, I have had some very strange and unexpected experiences both with self-promotion and promoting other people's work. As a person who belongs to multiple minorities, initially people did not know how to categorize me and—probably as a result?—did not even try. I never got mentioned as a Jewish author, a Hungarian author, a trans author, someone non-Western, non-Anglophone, etc. I don't think I ever had a single story promoted in any of the "international SF" events or collections, for example.

But as time passed, eventually people decided I was "the non-binary trans person" and started promoting me this way. Even though I was and am still talking about all my other marginalizations, my experiences, oversharing about my life on Twitter, flailing about Jewish holidays.

I frankly don't know what to do about this, but I guess there is only one pigeonhole for each author even in the supposedly diverse, intersectional, Very Progressive crowd. As a person who greatly enjoys talking about other people's work on the internet, I like to do promotions of authors who have multiple marginalizations—the last one was "intersectional asexual authors," which mostly featured asexual authors of color. Some of the people I featured messaged me to tell me that I was the first person who talked about them specifically as asexual authors of color—in each of the separate spheres, one aspect of their identity got ignored.

I think one big issue is the following recurrent pattern: majority people get introduced to the concept of reading diversely, and they feel able to present themselves as an authority on the topic much sooner than a minority person would—just because they are more accustomed to being in a privileged position. So they start to talk about diversity and promote diversity, but because they haven't read as widely yet, they go to the same household names who are already promoted in the mass media. The voices of these people also carry much farther than those of minority people. This results in a self-reinforcing cycle in which minority authors who already have a marketing push behind them get even more, while huge swathes of authors get nothing, and in the meanwhile readers clamor that the works they want to read do not exist. I just read a huge online rant the other day about how there were no racial or ethnic minority trans writers. Excuse me? We are here and we have been here for quite a while. But it feels to me that online, most of my activity is expended on existence proofs that X and Y and Z topics are already out there to read.

But are there things out there that genuinely do not exist that we would like to read? Is there something you haven't chanced upon, or you see very infrequently—maybe just one book or two dealing with a topic, or just one story or two?

Polenth: Of things I'd really like to see, I suspect some are genuinely rarer and some are just underpromoted. I doubt any truly don't exist. I can't read as quickly as a lot of people and don't have the budget to take too many chances on random books. Which means I haven't seen more than a drop of what is available.

Something I think is actually rarer are stories that don't revolve around new romantic or sexual relationships. I really like stories about families, in all their shapes and sizes. I want to see families with different numbers of parents, families with and without children, found families, and everything else I see around me on a daily basis. I want to see established families, rather than only ever seeing the moment they first meet. I want to see how authors think families might change in the future and how they'll stay the same.

These themes are also less common for stories about heterosexual cisgendered couples, which is why I think it's genuinely rarer. New romantic or sexual relationships tend to dominate there as well. The difference is that in a big pool of stories, there will be plenty of any one thing, even if it's a less popular subject. I grew up watching Lost in Space and The Addams Family, so I didn't lack family stories in general. Just ones that might also include someone like me.

A likely candidate for underpromotion are stories about people who are multiply marginalised, particularly when they're written by someone who is multiply marginalised. I've had experiences like you, where people deal with my identity by avoiding having to deal with it. I've sometimes been listed as non-binary and I become asexual during Asexual Awareness Week. But I don't get to be non-white, non-neurotypical, and working class. I don't get to be more than one at once.

I've also had bad experiences when someone says authors can promote themselves, because it means suddenly people have to deal with how they're going to categorise my identity. That doesn't usually end well. This means multiply marginalised authors are both promoted less, and discouraged when they try to push themselves forward.

Putting it all together, I'd really like to see more stories about families who are marginalised in ways that include, but are not limited to, gender and sexuality. I want to see them getting to have the same adventures as everyone else. But I think it'd be very hard to find my dream story unless the person who wrote it told me it existed, because chances are they'll be passed over in other people's recommendations.

I also want to find stories about things I don't know about, so wouldn't know to add it to a wishlist. I didn't know a whole lot about Jewish law, so wouldn't have considered how it intersects with non-binary gender and human/non-human status. That means I wouldn't have found your story "Three Partitions" in GigaNotoSaurus by searching for it.

What stories are at the top of your wishlist? Has not being able to find something influenced any of the stories you've written?

Bogi: I really like your wishlist item about families! I liked the Fierce Family anthology, though not all of the stories in it worked for me. I would very much appreciate more, similar content, also at novella and novel lengths. Our family is atypical along multiple dimensions, and our family interactions are not something I really see in fiction very often.

I also agree strongly about multiple marginalizations. I have heard frequently from people involved in publishing that if there is more than one marginalization, and the related topics are discussed and treated instead of being ignored, the work is "too complex for its length" (I have heard this for any length, from flash to doorstopper-size novel!) and "it is an issue story." Some of my favorite works fall into this category, so maybe I should just ask people to recommend me issue stories. . .

I would also very much appreciate more stories where the conflict is not about "vanquish these evil people!" or its variant, a favorite of many straight authors these days: "queer person battles evil homophobic enemies!" I would like stories, for example, about coping with natural disasters, tackling any kind of difficult situation while cooperating, or any kind of major personal life change that is not frequently discussed. I agree that often some of these topics are not present in SF about straight, cis, non-intersex (etc.) people either—the only SF story about spousal abuse and divorce that occurs to me offhand is Lois McMaster Bujold's Komarr, with a straight couple. I'm not saying everyone should all of a sudden write stories about QUILTBAG people abusing each other (G-d forbid), just trying to make the point that some issues which are very common, both in everyday life and in literary fiction, are missing from SF. Rose Lemberg also raised this point on Twitter a few months back, pointing out that there were very few SF stories about reproductive justice, or any kind of reproductive issue, even though this is a major political area of contention in Western countries these days. The only recent short story I managed to turn up in response was S.B. Divya's "The Egg" in Nature Futures, a flash piece about abortion.

I would also like to see stories where kink is not equated either with "immoral perversion" or with "hot, steamy sex right now!" I think we are at a point where a lot of editors want to see QUILTBAG stories, but they are very uncomfortable with QUILTBAG stories which have kinky elements, even though this is a part of many (though by no means all) gender/sexual minority cultures and traditions.

I think this belongs to a larger pattern where majority editors often prefer "comfortable" minority stories, where the minority protagonist behaves exactly like a majority person, save for belonging to a minority. Robert Bivouac had an article about the racial palette swap, and I see a similar phenomenon also about gender and sexuality. At first I thought that my stories about trans people didn't sell, but then I realized that when I write stories about people who are merely "accidentally" trans, they sell right away. Whereas my stories about trans people informed by trans cultures on a more than superficial level struggle more to find markets, and usually garner some really baffling reactions before finding a home. I am fine with writing both and think both are worthwhile (trans people should get to be like everyone else too!), but these options of writing trans stories are often presented as though only one option is worthwhile... which one depends on who is speaking.

I could literally keep at this all day and find newer and newer wishlist items: for example, I would like more work about trans people who do not pass as cis and yet are treated like people. One other topic that occurs to me is about intergenerational relationships with older people, which is a subset of family themes, but I think it is worth mentioning on its own. We seldom see characters, and this doubly applies to sexual or gender minority characters, interact with their elders in SF in ways that go beyond the cardboard Wise Elder Who Dispenses Plot-Relevant Information stereotype. I think several current authors go strongly against this trend, especially authors with Asian backgrounds: for example Zen Cho has stories like "The House of Aunts," or I could also mention Aliette de Bodard's On Red Station, Drifting. But as you said, it can be hard to find those stories. I would love to see a themed anthology along these lines.

Many people have been talking about intersections of neuroatypicality and gender/sexuality, and I really enjoyed your "Never the Same," which absolutely fits under there, but I have no idea how to find more. I can find either one or the other. I think "Never the Same" is also a good example of how, with two interacting marginalizations, one can be emphasized more than the other, with neither being ignored! Even at such short lengths.

As to whether what I haven't seen has influenced my writing—yes, absolutely. Stories involving consensual power-asymmetric relationships (in multiple senses of the word) that are not erotica but are just "regular" SF stories would be one. That's how "This Shall Serve As a Demarcation" or "The Need for Overwhelming Sensation" were born. What I would especially like to write with similar setups is SF mysteries, so I have been thinking about crime plots a lot. I have had very little time to write fiction or poetry due to my academic commitments lately, but I have very extensive plans!

I would also like to ask you about your plans in general—and I'd like to ask about your story "On Shine Wings" specifically (relevant for the families topic, too!). This was one of my favorite stories last year; I put it on my Hugo ballot, which had only a handful of slots. Do you have anything similar to it that you are planning, in any sense of "similar"? I also really liked your matching illustration and am wondering if illustration work is something you want to do more often, going forward.

Polenth: I had a bit of a non-binary-people-with-unusual-cyborgs phase. "On Shine Wings" is the one that sold, but I have a cyborg trees story and a vampire zombie pirate cyborg unicorn story. They'll most likely make it into my next collection, if nothing else.

I'd like to do more illustration, but I expect it'll mainly be for my own projects. SF illustration tends towards photorealism. Though my main concerns with that are as an author, rather than selling work as an artist. If the text is ambiguous about a character's body and presentation, it's nice if the illustration is the same. That's a lot easier to do with other art styles, where there can be sketchy lines and the like. I'm uncomfortable knowing my stories will be illustrated, because I know most artists will portray a character who presents as a man or a woman, even if the text makes it clear neither of those is right. This comes back to looking at who is working in all jobs involved in publishing, rather than just the authors.

Some of the things I'd like to do relate to the points you've raised. The older people issue links into not having many older protagonists in science fiction and fantasy. It's as though authors are struggling to make these characters into actual people. People don't stop being who they are when they hit thirty. Where are the old married gay couples and the trans people in their retirement?

One of my other genres is cozy mysteries, which is the reverse of this. Miss Marple is a defining example in a genre where older protagonists abound. Even when the sleuth is younger, they often have older relatives. Understanding community relationships is key to solving the mystery, and age brings a lot more experience of seeing communities in action.

It's why widening the plots and themes is also an important thing. In turn, it widens who gets to be the main character.

I also struggle with the problem of editors wanting comfortable narratives. They often have a firm view of the standard story and will resist any deviation from it. Like coming out stories for sexuality or transition stories for trans people. The person coming out tells their parents, gets an initially hostile reaction, then their parents come around. The person transitioning tries on the most stereotypical clothes they can find. Trans women always try red lipstick and high heels. Trans men bind their chest with bandages (which isn't recommended, but the standard story doesn't have binders).  It's not that people don't do these things, but it's portrayed as though everyone's story is the same.

Even in radically different fictional cultures, there's the expectation that the story won't really change. In a future with no homophobia, there's still a coming out scene. There's no need to come out, and no need for the level of fear about that, when no one thinks anything of a person's sexuality. But that's not the standard expectation, no matter how illogical the standard is in that context.

I feel a lot of editors don't realise their own bias when reading slush. They can be well-meaning in wanting a diverse slush pile, but end up rejecting stories based on their own preconceptions of how those stories should be.

In general though, my future is a scary place full of financial insecurity. It's not unusual for people to say there obviously must be a big market for diversity, because look at all those diversity pushes. What they don't realise is we wouldn't have those pushes if it were true. We wouldn't be having this discussion if the problems were over. I know my character and thematic choices are a barrier to sales, and that does impact what projects I go on to finish. There are many things I'd like to write, but I don't know if I can afford to write them.

Bogi: I think this is very true. I hope that all this discussion will eventually shift something, but what I often see right now is that the focus is on diverse themes, often written by majority outsiders and published by major presses. In the meanwhile, minority authors can have grassroots support, but I see that my audience often has just as little by way of financial resources as I have, or even less. Available scholarships or any kind of monetary support awards in SF are often small and I am almost always ineligible for them. Due to my student visa restrictions, I also cannot have a Patreon right now—I see a lot of complaints about Patreon and how most people only get small amounts, but for many of us, even small amounts can be helpful.

I would still like to be hopeful, and I have certainly seen an increased amount of openness in SF in recent years, but I have also seen people immediately countering these trends, and doing so with aggressive force. We will see what the future brings!

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me! We discussed many difficult and complex issues, and I am very glad this thought-provoking discussion could exist, and that Strange Horizons provided a place for it. I am wishing you strength and persistence for the future!

Polenth: I've had a few of those aggressive responses. It's difficult to deal with at times, because the community as a whole often doesn't take those threats seriously. Talking about these things does come at a cost. Anyway, thank you for inviting me! Hopefully the future will have more rainbows and fewer threats.




Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person who's recently become a resident alien in the US. E writes both fiction and poetry, and eir work has been published in a variety of venues like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld and Apex, among others. E reviews diverse fiction, poetry and nonfiction at Bogi Reads the World. You can follow em on Twitter at @bogiperson. Bogi also has a webserial, Iwunen Interstellar Investigations, set in the same continuity as this poem.
Polenth Blake lives where the mushrooms bloom in autumn. Polenth's first collection, Rainbow Lights, is out in the ocean somewhere.
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