When I started writing my adult fantasy debut, silk fire, I attended a world-building workshop taught by award-winning author NK Jemisin. She encouraged fantasy writers to build worlds from the bottom up, exploring how differences in geology, weather, and biology might all affect the culture of a fictional society. For example, in his trilogy the broken earthhumans living in an earthquake-prone world have organs that detect earthquake tremors.
I knew I wanted to write about an unlikely hero – a queer sex worker – in a world where sexuality was deeply tied to the economics of power. So my first decision was that in this world, women cannot get pregnant or stay pregnant unless they choose to. As I considered the implications of that choice and the magical system I was building – where strength is rooted in magic, not muscle – it seemed natural to develop my world as a matriarchy. From its earliest days, women would work together to fulfill all necessary social roles. In many cultures, men would be seen as accessories, with little to contribute, requiring protection. This setting created an irresistible internal conflict for my sex worker protagonist: who would he be and how would he understand himself, in a world where a fundamental aspect of his identity was considered a handicap and a weakness?
This question had deep personal meaning for me at the time. I was in the midst of my own gender transition, and was painfully aware of how sexism colored even the smallest social interactions, from men rushing to open doors for people they perceived as women, to common courtesy as an invitation to sex. But my most acute realization was that American society tolerates some gender nonconformity in women, if you don’t push it too far.
All my life I’ve been praised for not being “like other girls”, for excelling in science, speaking up in conversations, pursuing a career. The “girl power” media of the 90s and 00s gave the impression that the ideal, “empowered” woman was one who took on a masculine role. But when I announced my transition, I faced shame and ostracism. People would ask “can’t you just be a masculine woman?” Like I haven’t tried that in my entire life.
I came to realize that the ideal “male” career woman, especially as portrayed in movies and television written by cisgender men, still served the patriarchy. She never complained or expressed any personal desire; she worked twice as hard as her male counterparts to fill in their gaps. She encouraged real women to push themselves, taking on more tasks both at work and at home, providing the men in their families with more leisure and the men above them with more wealth. American society allows women to act like men if it benefits men. Embracing masculinity out of personal desire is taboo – women aren’t supposed to want things for themselves.
This is the idea that I wrote silk fire to explore: how a victim of sexism and its many related traumas might go about disentangling their personal identity from the gender roles they have been conditioned to respect. The protagonist, Koré, sees himself entirely through the lens of the gender roles he occupies, judging himself harshly for his inability to simultaneously be a perfect son, lover, and worker. He then receives the power of one of his city’s sacred dragons, a magic that grants him incredible power and places him in incredible danger. The magic happens every time he expresses his true self, which happens with increasing frequency as he finds love, confronts past traumas, and fights for the future of his town. Yet being himself means giving up the certainties that gender roles provide, the binary metrics by which he understands himself, and redefining himself in a complex story of economics, violence and intersecting identities.
In writing the story, I deliberately chose to focus on the male inhabitants of this world and build, from scratch, the systems used to control them. I was searching for my own place within an ideal masculinity that seems as simple and overwhelming as a hammerhead, twisting and twisting it until I can open the masculinity and make room for my experiences. Here are men who fear sexual violence; here are men who love fashion; here’s men attracted to masculine things and feminine things and everything else. Here are men who seek to act by participating in an unjust system; here are men who reject the system entirely. The female characters have their own challenges, but none are rooted in their gender, and even the most empathetic ones don’t quite understand how the men they care about fight. The male characters understand this, adapt to this, work to please the women in their lives – and largely accept this as normal. Sexism is not central to this story – it simply exists in this world, as it exists in ours.
Playing with gender in speculative fiction is a useful act of imagination, helping us understand sexism at its roots and laying the groundwork for a world without it. Textbooks may contain theories and case studies, but fiction creates an emotional possibility, a space to explore personal questions – what if that happened? How would that feel? – which leads to greater ones – why are some gender transgressions celebrated and others feared? What does this say about the purpose of gender as our society has constructed it? What does it mean to be a man if not power? The answer is: anything he can do, when he chooses to define himself.
Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor will be released on July 5