Editor's note: Why the conversation was titled "Towards Hope And Inclusivity" was a result of many many discussions on and off social media and the Internet. There is so much to hope for, to be inclusive to all in the community. No policing, no gatekeeping, no racism. None. We are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary. We are all valid.
This conversation also contains brief mentions of: animal cruelty/death, violence.
Joyce Chng, an articles editor from Strange Horizons.
Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky, The City in the Middle of the Night, and Victories Greater Than Death.
Keffy R. M. Kehrli, writer and editor of GlitterShip.
JC: I am deeply thankful to all of you who have agreed to participate in this conversation celebrating trans and nonbinary voices in science fiction and fantasy. First off, please introduce yourself.
CJA: I'm the author of a handful of books, most recently the super-queer young adult space fantasy Victories Greater Than Death. In August, I'm publishing Never Say You Can't Survive, a book of essays about how to use creative writing to get through scary times. I won the Lambda Literary Award for trans/genderqueer writing for my first novel, Choir Boy. Other books include All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night. I co-host the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. My main goal in life is to do a karaoke rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" that's so outrageous it shatters the space-time continuum.
KRMK: I’m a short science fiction and fantasy writer and editor. I started the queer short fiction magazine GlitterShip in 2015 (although it's been a little bit adrift for the past year or two due to a combination of, well, everything). I’ve written some short stories, a few of which are pretty queer. My story, “The Road, and the Valley, and the Beasts” was reprinted in Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, edited by Bogi Takács, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction. I’ve also been deep in the dissertation mines lately, working on a PhD in Genetics that I will, theoretically, finish this year.
JC: Now the questions start. How has your identity influenced your writing (or vice versa)? How has being trans or nonbinary been woven into your stories?
CJA: Everything I write is shaped by my identity and my experiences as a trans person. I frequently write about queer and trans characters and communities, but even when my work isn't explicitly featuring transness or queerness. The whole fumbling, anxious process of figuring out your identity and then finding a way to put it out into the world was such a huge formative thing for me, it constantly manifests in the stories I tell. My characters tend to struggle with an identity crisis and with finding their place in the world(s). I also seem to keep coming back to bodily transformation, something that I know Caitlin Kiernan also deals with a lot. I'm also keen on doing relationship stories or thought experiments in which gender, and different conceptions of gender, play a role.
KRMK: I think that the overriding feeling that motivated me to want to tell stories (and that drove me toward a lot of science fiction when I was a kid) could best be described as “yearning to be.” Before I knew I was trans, most of my characters were yearning to be something. Yearning to be popular, yearning to be a freedom fighter, yearning to be stronger, etc. Eventually I feel like that’s shifted into yearning to be their truest selves.
I also went through a period of trying to write transgender fiction when I hadn’t read a lot. This was back in the mid ‘00s. I’m not going to say there wasn’t any in the field, but I was new to the field and honestly not well read outside the best-sellers and Star Wars tie-ins. Since I was writing without a lot of direct examples, I feel like my first attempts to write about being trans were not explicit. So, instead of writing about a transgender character, I wrote about one who is a clone and being told who she is supposed to be when that person isn’t who she feels she is. I did write a couple stories in which characters struggled emotionally with their transness. Now I’m kind of in a phase where almost all my characters are to some degree trans or nonbinary. I think my fiction sort of follows my own personal journey through transness (discovery, angst, constantly talking about it) just with a delay of a couple years.
JC: What themes are common in your writing?
CJA: I touched on some of them above. I do love to write characters who are struggling with questions like, "Who am I?" "Who am I to you?" "If I do this thing, what does that make me?" I'm always trying to find ways to talk about empathy, and the need for human connection. I've been noticing the theme of violence popping up more and more, including stuff like state-sanctioned violence, and our overinvestment in violent fantasies. And of course, I keep writing about climate change and about the need to stop making our own planet uninhabitable.
KRMK: Oh gosh. I feel like I have fewer themes and more just word sludge that comes out of the compost pile that is all my experiences. Also, it’s gross, but animals keep getting eviscerated in my stories. I think that’s either me trying to feint in the direction of body horror without making myself too squeamish, or it’s part of having grown up in sufficiently rural-tinged suburbia that I grew up knowing what happens to the fish or elk you catch before you eat it. I also tend to get caught up in the space between writing a standard, recognizable, active-protagonist story structure and exploring what it feels like to be a single human being in the face of the massive, institutional structures that control our lives. It’s hard. I sort of live in that tension between wanting to save the world and acknowledging that it’s not a one-person job, so now what? Pseudo-anarchist romantic-pessimist queer city-sl-hick-er … is that a collection themes or a word salad?
JC: Do you think the SFF field has made progress when it comes to transgender identities and issues?
CJA: Undeniably. I used to go to conventions and other gatherings and be one of a couple of trans/nonbinary people present. A decade ago, trans/nonbinary folks were not getting nominated for the major awards in the field, and there were very few of us published by the bigger publishers. Other trans people told me in all seriousness that an openly trans person would never be a successful SFF author–it simply wouldn't be accepted or supported. And now I look at all the award ballots and see hosts of heart-stoppingly brilliant trans/nonbinary writers getting recognition, and it makes me so happy. That said, we have a *long* way to go. There are still a lot of barriers in the way of trans/nonbinary representation in genre publishing, and I'm hoping that a few years from now, we'll be seeing way more trans/nonbinary folks writing every kind of speculative fiction.
KRMK: I feel like this is a bit of a “yes, but” situation. So, yes, in my own life, absolutely. I started out going to conventions and not really knowing of very many trans or even queer authors outside of my immediate friends group. A frequent panel topic for authors was along the lines of, “Are there any magazines that will publish my queer stories at all?” Let alone trans or non-binary ones. Now I feel like with short fiction (which I know better than the novel world) it’s extremely unlikely to find a major magazine in the field that has not or would not publish a short story by a trans or non-binary author with explicitly trans or nonbinary characters. We’re an important part of the tapestry of science fiction and fantasy. Granted, there’s still a lot of really kind of crap reviews that, for instance, act like using a non-binary pronoun for a character is the strangest thing anyone could ever choose to do. But, hey. Getting a bad review after getting published because your story was super trans is at least a step in the right direction from not getting published at all or being too worried about rejection to even try.
The “but” to go with the “yes” for me is that I am currently out and relatively comfortable, and some of my awareness of how editors feel about trans and non-binary people has come from the privileged position of being able to talk with them as colleagues both online and at conventions. I know that the field looks more questionable to people who don’t have those experiences, so although I believe things are better now, I do not want to deny the experiences of other people.
JC: Excellent! Now, another one: There is enough gatekeeping in the field. What would you say to the gatekeepers on what and how to be a proper trans or nonbinary SFF writer? (Like there is no such thing as The One True Way of ______, right?)
CJA: Ugh. I long ago stopped trying to say anything to gatekeepers.
KRMK: I’m kind of similar to Charlie Jane on this one. I try not to talk to gatekeepers, though I think I have a lot to say about them? I’m a big fan of the block button on Twitter. I don’t subscribe to any blocklists so all my blocks are artisanal, but I block freely and with ease if someone’s trying to put trans and nonbinary people inside of little fences. Life’s honestly too short.
That said, I do think that there’s more than one kind of gatekeeper. Some are basically just bigots, in which case: see above. But I do think that, as an extension of how #ownvoices has grown beyond its initial goals, we see what I would consider to be well-intentioned gatekeepers. These are people who, in an attempt to save trans and non-binary people from having our stories told exclusively by cis people, get a little too wrapped up in who is or isn’t trans when telling a trans story. Can you detect someone’s transness based on whether or not a story is fully conversant on the issues and using the same general language that we use in our community? What happens if you’re wrong? How do we treat other trans people with trust and respect if we start from an inherently untrusting place? How do we protect and embrace trans people within SFF who aren’t publicly out (by choice or because being out is unsafe)?
I am by no means perfect, but I try to err on the side of trying to do the least harm to other trans and non-binary people, and that often means extending trust.
JC: Second last question, I promise. What kind of sff would you like to see more in the future(s)?
CJA: I'm really craving a lot more hopeful, friendly SFF that celebrates our queer communities and all the beautiful things that can happen when we support and appreciate each other.
KRMK: This is probably just going to betray the privilege of how I, as a white kid, was able to view the world and world history as a child. But I’d like SFF that makes it feel good instead of terrifying to think of the future. I don’t want the retro-future with flying cars and robot servants and a Star Trekian hand-wave of past abuses, but visions of a new, inclusive future. What does reconciliation and healing look like? What can we look forward to that isn’t an apocalypse, but also doesn’t pretend that climate change isn’t happening? I want fiction that acknowledges the shortcomings of past dreams but isn’t afraid to put forth a new vision of the future.
JC: Last question! Recommend one trans and/or nonbinary writer (plus their titles!) who has impacted your lives or influenced you in any way.
CJA: There are so many. I'm currently learning so much from authors like Rivers Solomon, Sarah Gailey, Janet Mock, K. M. Szpara, Ryka Aoki and Nino Cipri, among many, many others. The trans fiction author who had a huge influence on me, and really expanded my ideas of what was possible in prose fiction, is probably Rachel Pollack. (Unquenchable Fire, Temporary Agency, The Child Eater, and an underrated run on Doom Patrol.)
KRMK: Are we allowed to list other people who are on this conversation Because I love Charlie Jane’s work. Is this cheating? The City in the Middle of the Night gave me so many thoughts and feelings about going off to join and understand extraterrestrial people. R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse, including The Four Profound Weaves, beautifully situates trans and non-binary identities in a historically rooted fantasy world.