The Big Idea: Malinda Lo

Here’s a thought: What if the big idea about a book isn’t something in particular — it’s about the absence of something in particular? Does that count? And what does it do to the story you’re telling?

The question is relevant to Malinda Lo, whose debut novel Ash is a retelling of the Cinderella story in a fantasy world that in some ways is a familiar one, but in one critical way is not. What is the difference and what are the implications of that difference? Lo is here to explain it all.

MALINDA LO:

My debut novel, Ash, is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. But the big idea behind it isn’t that Cinderella is a lesbian. The big idea is this: Nobody in the book cares that she’s a lesbian.

Let me explain.

My first draft of Ash was, I admit, a relatively straightforward — and straight — retelling of the fairy tale. Ash, the Cinderella character, fell in love with the prince. But then I asked a friend to read it, and she did me the biggest favor ever: She told me that Ash and the prince lacked chemistry. She also pointed out that Ash had a lot of chemistry with this other character in the book, who happened to be a woman.

Her feedback prompted me to look long and hard at that draft of Ash, and that was when I realized I had a choice: I could attempt to beef up the prince’s charm quotient, or I could take this book in the direction I had already subconsciously begun to go in, and rewrite it so that Ash falls in love with a woman.

I admit, the idea of writing a “lesbian Cinderella” freaked me out a little bit. I’m queer myself, and at the time I had just started writing for entertainment news site AfterEllen.com, covering mainstream representation of lesbians and bisexual women. It was blatantly obvious that the mainstream has a long way to go before LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are adequately and fairly included in the media. I feared that by turning Ash into a lesbian Cinderella, it might become unsellable.

So I thought about it for a long time. On Friday, Oct. 1, 2004, I made a decision. I wrote in my journal: “I’m going to turn it into a lesbian Cinderella. That’s what wants to happen; I’ve just had to accept it.”

Once I started the revision, I faced another question: How does the world of Ash deal with homosexuality? It’s set in a fantasy world with an enchanted forest, complete with fairies based in Irish tradition. I had never read a single fantasy novel in which there were any queer characters. And if you’ve read any mainstream fantasy, most of the worlds are medieval in feel, including social mores. If I were to follow that tradition, Ash would have to struggle against a lot of homophobia.

But I had absolutely no desire to write a book full of medieval social customs. So I decided that in Ash’s world, homosexuality is entirely normal. People are more likely to be heterosexual, but nobody blinks when they see a same-sex couple. It is a natural and legitimate state of being.

That allowed me to write Ash as a fairy tale, not a coming-out story. That means that Ash only has to fall in love. When her love interest is another woman, it’s just as wonderful as it would be if she fell in love with a man.

I’m guessing that most if not all LGBT people understand that this is the true fairy tale: the idea that you could fall in love with someone of the same sex and only know the dizzying feeling of falling in love — untarnished by any of society’s disapproval. And you know what? Gay people need fairy tales, too.

Over the past few years especially, the gay rights movement has made some staggering leaps forward. We still have a long way to go before our world is as accepting of us as Ash’s world, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. Until then, I do hope that Ash can be part of that change for the better. It’s important for us to imagine a world in which we can love whomever we love, regardless of gender.

—-

Ash: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from Ash. Visit Malinda Lo’s Web site. Follow her on Twitter.

129 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Malinda Lo

  1. It seems like a shame that you have to write a story like this as a fantasy, rather than set in the real world. At the same time, a book which just accepts homosexuality as normal may do a little bit to help make the real world a little bit more like your invented one.

    Regardless, it sounds like it will make an interesting read; it’s now placed in my cart.

  2. @PJ — they got ostracized by their parents, though, and were only accepted when they proved to be magical badasses (and that by other magical badasses).

  3. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) today is Outer Alliance Pride Day.

    And now I get contentious.

    While I’m sure the story is great, I’m not sure that imaging a world in which anti-queer bigotry never existed is all that interesting unless there’s something for it to contrast against. Take Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Ethan Of Athos”, where there’s a world of men who use uterine replicators to recreate men, and homosexuality is the norm (because there’s no women, and because society expects it of you).

    Stephen Barnes’ Aubery Knight books have a similar issue where there’s a gay seperatist movement of hypermasculine athletes and mercenaries, and a women’s lesbian collective.

    I get that these things are exploded into an exaggerated expression of some real world ideas that could only be explored by SF or fantasy. But they still acknowledge that somewhere, bigotry existed, and there’s a reaction against it.

    For me, fantasy worlds like Ellen Kushner’s Riverside stories make more sense. There’s still bigotry, and characters deal with it. That’s something I can relate to because I understand it. Having a world that never had anyone needing to deal with that sort of bigotry leaves less for me to relate to.

    So, I think what I’m saying is, a world that’s as accepting as Ash’s world will still have the history of our world for a long time. And until then our struggle is something I want books I enjoy that have queer characters to acknowledge in some way.

  4. For well written fantasy with open acceptance, I really enjoyed Diane Duane’s The Door Into Fire (1979) and The Door Into Shadow (1984).

    I look forward to getting Ash now too!

  5. PJ: Mac is right on that one – the “Vanyel” books were in some respects a coming out story, which it sounds like this author wanted to avoid. And, it extends throughout the entire trilogy — even in the third book when the guy is basically a hero, his parents are still wigged out by his gayness. And in the second book, the character deals with particularly ugly stereotypes about gay men and children.

    Although, the Tayledras characters were a little like what the author describes here — they had no issues with same-sex relationships. But that was just one culture in the overall fantasy world, and only the focus of some of the books.

    I love the whole series, and I think it may have done a lot of good, but I really like the idea that Malinda Lo puts forward here, that same-sex love just isn’t at all remarkable or unusual. I have an anthology of gay/lesbian-themed Science Fiction short stories from several years ago, and a few of the stories are set in worlds that are similar, and it is an interesting approach.

    At any rate, I’ve just added Ash to my list of books I need to read…kind of funny how so many on that list come from the Big Idea thing…

  6. Josh: I wouldn’t want an entire diet of what it sounds like Ash offers. But yes, yes indeed, I do very much want some of it. Successful struggle is important, and unsuccessful struggle is too, but sometimes I want to be able to kick back and enjoy the thought of not needing to struggle for my own romantic and spiritual well-being in any way different from what the population at large does. It seems to me healthy and desirable to sometimes show readers worlds that have never been cramped and deformed by homophobia, along with ones that have different kinds of bigotry present and different aspects of existing prejudices.

  7. @Josh Jasper
    The point is that the character being a lesbian is not supposed to be the central theme of the story. This is a love story, plain and simple.

    Not every story that has queer characters needs to include social commentary on Gay vs Straight life. I am tired of all Gay literature focusing on coming out and religion and bashing and prejudice. Why can’t we have a simple love story without all the fuss?

  8. This sounds like a wonderful story, and I love the idea of same sex relationships just being part of the mix. Of course, I’m sad that we’re only seeing this in a fantasy novel, ’cause I want to live in that world.

    Plus, while I’m not one who buys books for the covers, the cover of Ash is superb!

  9. This is the kind of book that I would love for my younger kids as they grow up (currently 8, 9, and 11). A book that shows being gay just means that you love someone the same sex as yourself. That it is part of a person, but doesn’t have to define a person. Or define a story, for that matter.

    I hope that the story holds itself up on its own merits, but I have little doubt of that, seeing that the esteemed Mr. Scalzi has put you out here.

  10. This sounds like an important and beautiful entry to the canon of fairy tale retellings. As for other fantasy – I just finished a gorgeous novel called Bitter Moon, by Amy Lane. Though it has a medieval-type setting, the status quo is a culture of loving and open-minded acceptance… evil comes in the form of an infestation of bigotry and persecution.

  11. Chris@2: Marrying for love is a fairly modern notion. Through most of history, marriages were arranged, at least for the the nobility and merchant classes. As such, “gay couple” would have been a bit of a misnomer…everyone was expected to marry and procreate regardless of who they particularly wanted to sleep with. As such, the common behavior of a gay man or woman in medieval times would have been to marry and procreate, but perhaps have a sex partner on the side…differing only from a heterosexual man or woman in the sex of the partner.

    Of course, what happened if the relationship were discovered varied massively depending on the particular culture.

  12. From what I recall about ancient Celtic cultures they did not make much of sexual orientation one way or the other. In fact, in the older stories, sex was not even connected to reproduction. Having babies was between women and the gods and your sister’s children were your heirs, not the children of your wife. Most folks were hetero but there were strong homoerotic elements to a lot of the stories. And this is what has survived 1500 years of Christian revision. In their older forms I strongly suspect that they were much more bawdy and open.

  13. Diane Duane’s Door series is a good example of a world where sexuality isn’t based on gender but on who you love.

    I vaguely remember a group marriage at the end of the third book. I’m looking forward to the fourth (which she says she’s working on!) and seeing how that works out for them.

    Going to have to check out “Ash” now.

  14. Just out of curiosity, what was the big idea behind the novel other than the lesbian relationship? She said that that was a change after she was part of the way in, so what was the initial premise beyond “retelling cinderella”? What kind of retelling was it going to be?

  15. @Ben: The big idea is that we have a lesbian-themed romance that doesn’t focus on coming-out, intolerance, or religious dogma getting in the way of the romance. As someone who’s read a lot of lesbian lit, this really IS a big idea. Lesbian romances are almost always hindered by the fact that, unlike most straight romances, they have to wade through a whole lot more redundant conflicts about their sexual orientation.

    I have always wanted some books about lesbians that didn’t treat it like it was a big deal. This book is essentially exactly like a straight romance, except for Cinderella falls for a chick. Her sexual orientation is taken as a non-issue.

    When I am reading a fantasy story, I don’t want to be bogged down with modern politics in my stories. I’m already in imagination mode. I want to imagine a place where this prejudice doesn’t exist.

  16. Not sure how good the scholarship is, since it’s been years since I read it, but John Boswell (a medieval historian at Yale) wrote a 400+ page book still in print at Amazon, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century” (1980).
    John has a Wikipedia page here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Boswell

  17. Josh@ 6

    I don’t see that it is contentious to say that a book doesn’t look like your cup of tea. There are matters of taste here, and I hope they can be respected. I hope you don’t think there is anything “wrong” about writing a story that assumes a fairytale like acceptance of various sexual orientations– just that you just prefer something else for your own reading.

    I doubt I’ll read Grossman’s book The Magicians–not because I think there’s anything bad about– just because it looks like a particular kind of downer that’s not my taste in books.

  18. I just read a silly fantasy called “The Good Fairies of New York”, by Martin Millar, in which the fairies think homophobia is absolutely ridiculous, and exactly the kind of needless complication humans are famous for. I agree.

  19. @hope – nothing wrong with it at all. But it’s certainly not something I think is appealing personally.

  20. Actually, this looks like a book that the YA collection at my local public library could use . . . so I just put in a “request to order.”

  21. Megan Rose @24
    Yes, I know. I read the original post. What I’m asking is, what was the original impetus for retelling cinderella before she re-wrote it to be a non contentous lesbian romance?
    I’m just curious as to what her original inspiration was.

  22. Josh@6: I’m not sure that imaging a world in which anti-queer bigotry never existed is all that interesting

    If you had just tacked on “to me”, at the end of that clip, you probably wouldn’t have gotten anyone disagreeing with you.

  23. ben@22: what was the big idea behind the novel other than the lesbian relationship?

    I think the part about it being in a world in which people don’t want to condemn lesbians to hell for all eternity was rather significantly different than our current condition.

  24. Sounds like a fun , interesting read. Added to tomorrow’s list.

    I know it’s a bad joke but I cannot resist puns. Ask any of my SCA friends.

    Ahem, well it _is_ a fairy tale.

  25. Touching on what Josh said above:

    Much as I hate to bring it up, I’m reminded ever-so-slightly of a topic discussed during RaceFail:

    If a character is (marginalized group), but never experiences anything particular to that group status, is that character really actually (marginalized group), or just a different flavor of (dominant group)?

    WRT POCs, this usually means that if you have a character who could easily be mistaken for white but for a few notes tossed in about skin and hair color, you’re not really creating a POC character.

    In a case like this, the danger is in creating a lesbian who could be mistaken for straight if not for the fact that she’s sexually attracted to other women.

    The flip side of this, of course, is the danger in dipping one’s toes into stereotypes in an effort to create authentically (marginalized group) characters. Creating a lesbian character who is a caricatured broad-shouldered, man-hating diesel dyke isn’t any better than creating one who may as well be straight.

    You can’t, in other words, create a character who is primarily defined by his or her marginalized group status (especially if you’re relying on thin stereotypes to do it), nor can you create one who isn’t defined that way at all.

    Being a minority–even if one isn’t persecuted in one’s culture–will necessarily inform who a person becomes beyond the difference that separates them from the majority. It will NOT inform every person in exactly the same way, however.

    I’m not saying (without having read the book) that this author necessarily falls into the heteronormative pitfall with her character, nor am I saying that a minority character must necessarily experience persecution in order for their minoritiness (is, too a word!) to be authentic.

    I’m just saying that minority characters have to be drawn as full people for whom being a minority is not just a blip on their stats list nor the entirety of their being, but a fully integrated part of who they are.

  26. Also, to address Josh’s specific point: I think if the point of a minority character is to be an analog for the experiences of minorities in our world, it makes sense for that character to have similar experiences and therefore character shaping. (And this will necessarily always mean some form of persecution or marginalization.)

    However, it could also be said that there’s merit in creating an idealized fantasy world for minority characters so they become not just someone with whom the minority reader identifies, but an avatar who can experience a more idealized life for the reader. (SFF writers do trade in escapism, yes?)

  27. With regards towards the medieval attitude towards homosexuality (this is what I remember my History of Western Civ professor, who focused on this, saying last year): women were thought not to have sexual desires, so lesbians just wouldn’t have made any sense conceptually. Sodomy, at that point referring to any non-procreative sex, including homosexuality between men, was disapproved of, and practitioners were persecuted with varying degrees of intensity depending on the time period.

  28. Tal @ 36

    Since the world is stipulated as one where gender orientation is not a remarkable factor, that facet of one’s character does not then make one a member of a minority any more than being a redhead or a blond. I can see it getting about the same level of regard as that generated by blond jokes, Thwacker the Barbarian or absent minded professor jokes. A minority statistically perhaps but not a marginalized one.

  29. Josh Jasper@6:
    And now I get contentious.

    That’s totally out of character for you, Josh. Got the swine flu or something? :)

    While I’m sure the story is great, I’m not sure that imaging a world in which anti-queer bigotry never existed is all that interesting unless there’s something for it to contrast against.

    Up to a point… I’m sure that what is deeply uninteresting is the literary equivalent of the ‘very special episode where we all learn a lesson about tolerance’, where GLBT red shirts exist as noble victims of oppression so the rest of us can have a learning experience through their triumph over adversity.

  30. Tal@36: If a character is (marginalized group), but never experiences anything particular to that group status, is that character really actually (marginalized group), or just a different flavor of (dominant group)?

    Er, wait. Doesn’t that mean a POC in fiction is only a POC if they experience what a POC in the real world experiences now or had experienced in the past?

    Your definition sort of rules out the possibility of future.

    If the main character is a lesbian who is portrayed the way homophobes might portray a lesbian, then I’d say the story has issues. If the main character is a lesbian, and happens to be in a world where lesbians are treated just like heteros, then that doesn’t flag it as a problem in my book.

  31. As the author herself is queer, I think I’m QUITE willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that she knows how to work queerness into a character’s…characterization.

  32. And there’s nothing wrong with the ‘very special episode…’ mode of didactic storytelling if (to get all Tim Gunn for a moment) you make it work. My point was that it’s not the only way to have GLBT characters in genre, or any other kind of fiction.

    Just look at Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ — just because Winter/Gethen is a world where our ideas of gender and gender roles are meaningless to the inhabitants, I don’t think you could accuse Le Guin of being insensible to the issues. As happens so often in Le Guin’s best work, we’re challenged to imaginatively get inside worlds where our norms (around gender, race, culture, politics, even the whole idea of what is “normal”) just don’t apply.

  33. Nargel @ 39: Read the rest of my post. Merely being a minority doesn’t mean that a given person is going to experience persecution or even marginalization. But it DOES mean that they’re going to experience life in a different way that will necessarily shape who they become as a person in ways that are different from the majority.

    Example: I’m not persecuted within my culture for being vegetarian, but I do experience a key part of life–eating–in a different way than the majority, which shapes how I adapt to the world and thus who I have become.

    If someone were to write a vegetarian character, that character would not merely be a non-meat-eater, but would likely be someone who is more aware of the ingredients in what she eats, who is more aware of food production in general, and who usually has to plan ahead when eating out or eating at a friend’s house.

    No-one in my culture thinks I’m a bad person because of how I eat, but I do experience life differently than people who eat in the most common way.

    Greg @ 41: See my followup post. The cultural experiences don’t have to be direct analogs to those of our own. They just have to be distinct from the experiences of the majority, because they necessarily will be no matter what the culture.

    Or, to put it more succinctly:

    Being different doesn’t have to mean experiencing persecution, but it does mean being different.

    Mac @ 42: Most likely. I just wanted to head off the idea that “normalizing” to the dominant group is a good solution for including minority characters.

  34. Tal@42 wrote:

    Mac @ 42: Most likely. I just wanted to head off the idea that “normalizing” to the dominant group is a good solution for including minority characters.

    Greg London@33 wrote:

    Josh@6: I’m not sure that imaging a world in which anti-queer bigotry never existed is all that interesting

    If you had just tacked on “to me”, at the end of that clip, you probably wouldn’t have gotten anyone disagreeing with you.

    Tal- What did you mean? Not a good solution– for you. Or not a good solution. Period. End of statement. ?

    Do you see something unethical in writing a story in which characters with analogs in our world live without the persecutions they experience in real life?

  35. I’m sorry. All those quotes were more clearly separated in the little comment box. I should have previewed. My bad.

  36. @ Tal 46:
    I would be careful, however, of going too far in the opposite direction as well, though. I remember being quite extremely offended at the suggestion, offerer on behalf of black people, during the aforementioned Fail, that it would be somehow silly and ridiculous and “overly normalizing” to write a black character as playing the cello or saying “Mum,” because it’s something we black folk just Do Not Do. Because… I don’t know. It Isn’t Done. Too inherently alien. Reminded me far too much of being a teenager and being asked by white suburbanites why I was not “like, speaking slang or whatever.”

    There is, of course, a happy medium in there somewhere, which we all must strive for, and none of us can really take it for granted that we just have it down…but yeah, sight unseen, I’m pretty willing to trust this author to define herself.

  37. Hope @ 47: Tal- What did you mean? Not a good solution– for you. Or not a good solution. Period. End of statement. ?

    Do you see something unethical in writing a story in which characters with analogs in our world live without the persecutions they experience in real life?

    I mean that if the goal is to increase minority representation in SFF stories, creating Ethnic Barbies is not the way to go.

    And, as I’ve said several times now: I do not believe that persecution is necessary for a minority character to be authentic.

    If I’m looking for representation in a given story–an avatar–I’m not necessarily going to find a character inauthentic if she doesn’t experience the oppression and persecution I do.

    But I will find her inauthentic if the only way in which she’s supposed to be like me is a single characteristic that doesn’t inform who she is.

    A character who is supposed to be Jewish, for instance, doesn’t necessarily have to experience anti-Semitism. But she does have to have more Jewishness about her than simply having a last name that ends in -berg.

  38. Mac @ 49: Hence why relying on stereotypes doesn’t work, either.

    IMHO, both things are the signs of a lazy writer:

    If you’re writing your minority characters as (dominant group) but with a single minority trait, you’re being lazy.

    Likewise, if you’re writing your minority characters as a set of stock caricatures, you’re also being lazy.

    In both cases, you’re setting up a template and shoving your character into it, instead of generating a wholly new person who is the sum of his or her life experiences.

    (And again, I’m not implying in any way that this author is guilty of any of these things.)

  39. Some really excellent fantasy with gay characters is Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett’s Pointsman duology, Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams. The lead characters are a gay guy and a bisexual guy, there are other LGB background characters, and there are civil unions! Terrific worldbuilding and plotting as well.

    (I think Tamora Pierce’s books also have gay characters.)

  40. Tal@46: Being different doesn’t have to mean experiencing persecution, but it does mean being different.

    Being a lesbian, the main character falls in love with a woman. That’s the difference. Everything else could be exactly identical as far as I’m concerned. There could be the whole “find the girl who fits this shoe” thing, the “get back before midnight” thing, the “evil stepmother” thing. and even the “THey lived happily ever after” thing. The only functional difference is she falls in love with another woman.

    As for people of color, they aren’t different based on their actions, they’re different based on the color of their skin, which means a POC in fiction doesn’t have to do anything different than a white person in the story.

    I think that would be the ideal goal of any sort of human equality, that anyone can do whatever they want regardless of color or gender or whatever. Which would mean that different people may end up doing the exact same thing. Or that you couldn’t tell the color of someone’s skin based on their actions.

    I’d like to hope that in a few hundred years, the only thing you’ll be able to tell from a person’s actions, the way they talk, the little human habits that they pick up, their job title, their hobbies, is what geographical location they may have grown up in, but not the color of their skin or sexual orientation or gender.

    Obviously, we’re not there yet. But in a Cinderella fairy tale, there isn’t much dilineation of skin color, for example. One could interpret that to mean either everyone is white, or one could interpret it into a new kid of story where people are of all different colors, but it doesn’t matter. In the original Cinderella, there isn’t anyone coming out and saying homosexuality is bad. So one could interpret that to mean everyone is straight, or one could take it in a different direction and say that different orientations exist, and no one cares.

    But that’s Cinderella.

    Now, if one were to take, say, Harry Potter, and have Dumbledore be openly gay in what is supposed to be our current world (with the world of magic simply hidden out of our sight), then Dumbledore behaving openly gay should have him run into people from our present who are homophobes. If he didn’t run into homophobes, I’d see that as a problem.

    Having him be secretely gay without any gay issues is kind of a cheat, which I had a slight problem with. But that’s the world of Harry Potter.

    But in the world of Cinderella, it’s actually works to have a lesbian character and no one cares and be consistent with the original story in its own way.

    Cinderella takes place in an alternate universe where magic works. that universe doesn’t have to have everything like our universe except magic. It could be a world where people don’t care about your sexual orientation.

  41. Talon@50: A character who is supposed to be Jewish, for instance, doesn’t necessarily have to experience anti-Semitism. But she does have to have more Jewishness about her than simply having a last name that ends in -berg.

    “Jewishness”? With all due and sincere respect, Talon, perhaps you could have chosen a slightly less loaded “for example”. OTOH, I don’t get into the epic RepresentationFail of enforcing “authenticity” with much enthusiasm either.

  42. Craig@56, Well, a Jewish character would observe Jewish holidays and traditions to some degree or another, or they wouldn’t be Jewish.

    They might not work on holy days. Not eat certain foods. Eat certain foods on certain days. Have a ceder once a year. maybe have a head covering. Maybe observe certain traditions around their hair.

    A jewish character in fiction wouldn’t need to experience anti-semitism, but I think they’d have to observe some Jewish traditions, or it lands as an attempt to insert a token character in the story. The author got lazy in that case.

  43. Craig @ 56: Ok, sub whatever you’d like. The point is the same: Being a minority is always going to create differences in a person beyond just that one particular vital statistic.

    These differences are of course not the same for every person or even every culture, and they’re neither positive nor negative, nor do they always garner marginalization and persecution.

    But they are differences. Subtle ones, in many ways (as with the vegetarian example above), but they are differences.

    The experiences of a lesbian in this fantasy world are necessarily going to be different than the experiences of a lesbian in our world. But they will NOT be exactly the same as the experiences of a straight woman, within that world or within our own. “Straight-but-likes-girls” is not enough to create a lesbian character no matter what universe you’re working in unless lesbians are not a minority.

    Homogenization is lazy characterization, whether you’re doing it in a dominant-norm way or in a stereotypical-minority one. Real people simply aren’t like that. They neither exist wholly within their minority-status trait nor wholly outside of it.

    (Also, it’s just Tal, not Talon. Different person. :) )

  44. Greg @57: Yes, that’s my point. Of course individual Jews are going to vary depending on their particular cultural background (third-generation American v. Israeli, for instance), whether they’re Reformed or Orthodox, how observant they are, etc. But there is simply going to be more to their being Jewish than just a name, and creating a character that’s a Gentile named Goldberg just doesn’t fly.

    The non-lazy writer develops an entire background for her characters, and creates who they are at that moment in time based on their life experiences up to that point. She does not just slap a label on them and assume that tells the reader everything they need to know.

    Also, I’ve seen you make the argument at 55 before, and it was bad idealism then, too.

    Of course it would be lovely if we lived in a world in which our differences were not an excuse for persecution, but it would definitely not be lovely if our differences were completely erased, or subsumed into a formless whole, in the goal of reducing persecution.

    The goal, in other words, is not to give a lesbian the “honor” of seeing her just like a straight woman, but to acknowledge that she is lesbian, and that she is necessarily different from straight women, and that’s not a bad thing.

    I think many people automatically see “different” or “minority” as some sort of bad thing that automatically earns marginalization. But it’s not, and shouldn’t be. Diversity is a good thing.

    There is, as mentioned above, healthy and comfortable middle ground between whitewashing minority characters and setting them up as stock stereotypes to hammer the MINORITY ALERT message into the reader’s head. And that middle ground? Lies entirely within quality writing and characterization.

  45. @Tal:

    GregLondon(55) said exactly what I was struggling for a while to put into words. These minority characters (lesbian, black, etc.) aren’t any different from any other people other than their sexual orientation, or their skin color. If a lesbian goes through life without ever experiencing the negative effects of homophobia or having it shape her life in any way, she’s still a lesbian. Everyone is different, but she doesn’t have stand out in any other way other than that she’s a lesbian.

    I think the reason your vegetarian example doesn’t work is because that’s a conscious lifestyle choice. But people don’t choose to be lesbian or black. You might have to be extra careful and extra conscious of your diet, and of course that’ll be different from someone else who doesn’t choose to avoid meat, but lesbians fall in love and date the same way straight people do. So other than the fact that she’s dating a girl, there’s no other difference.

  46. I just finished reading Sherwood Smith’s _Inda_ fantasy series set in a world where LGBT characters are quite plentiful. As a matter of fact, most of the characters seem to be written as bi with only a few who are exclusively attracted to one gender.

    _Ash_ sounds like it is set in a similarly interesting world.

  47. Good luck to Ms Lo for her book. Though it seems there’s more queer visibility in fantasy these days (such as the two unabashedly gay protagonists of Richerd Morgan’s ‘The Steel Remains”) a world where the fact of having a same-sex lover as a non-issue (certainly not true in Morgan’s book!) sounds interesting to explore.

    I have to wonder which other minority groups will face bigotry instead – or whether there won’t be any bigotry at all, which I’d find much harder to suspend disbelief about.

    SF has a few examples where gender of chosen lover is a non-issue. A fave of mine is in B5 – Susan Ivanova’s love for a woman (right after a male ex-lover showed up) is treated no differently than her previous or subsequent relationships. Does fantasy have more or less of this than SF, I wonder (not having read enough of the latter to judge)?

  48. Caitlin @ 61: I think the reason your vegetarian example doesn’t work is because that’s a conscious lifestyle choice. But people don’t choose to be lesbian or black. You might have to be extra careful and extra conscious of your diet, and of course that’ll be different from someone else who doesn’t choose to avoid meat, but lesbians fall in love and date the same way straight people do. So other than the fact that she’s dating a girl, there’s no other difference.

    People are not homogenous. We are all products of our genes, our cultures and our experiences, and whatever differences we have in those things will make us different from other people.

    A trait that involves something as key in life as how one loves is not going to have no effect on how a person develops. It need not have a negative effect, but it will nonetheless have one.

    In the lesbian example, merely being in the minority is going to make a difference even if only because her options for partners will be limited in a way that isn’t the same for straight women. (If only 10% of the population would be interested in you, you don’t have nearly the same choice in partners as someone who has 90% of the population available.)

    That’s a key difference in how an individual lesbian will experience life, and that will affect the kind of person she becomes. Does she become less picky about her potential partners than she might be otherwise? Does she date women who might not be good for her because she has few other options? Does she feel the need to move to a larger city so she can meet more potential partners?

    See? Just that one simple thing makes a huge difference. And that’s just one of many things, none of which have anything to do with persecution.

    Of course not every member of a given minority is going to experience life the same way and thus intragroup homogenization is also bad. But it’s folly to assume that it’s impossible for a minority to be any different from the majority unless they’re being persecuted.

  49. GregLondonon@57:
    Well, a Jewish character would observe Jewish holidays and traditions to some degree or another, or they wouldn’t be Jewish.

    I reply:
    I’ll defer to secular, non-observant persons of Jewish descent who might have a stack of bones to pick with you on that point. You see, that’s where getting your label-maker out starts getting problematic, if not downright offensive. Tal went and blundered into a really complex, and hotly contested area and I appreciate that she filled it in a bit.

  50. @Tal:

    “But it’s folly to assume that it’s impossible for a minority to be any different from the majority unless they’re being persecuted.”

    It’s also folly to assume that a member of a minority group HAS to be different from the majority in any other way than whatever defined their minority status in the first place.

    What other characteristic (other than liking girls) would you say a lesbian character has to have to establish her “lesbianness”?

    I can guarantee you lesbians are not thinking “there’s only 10% of the females who are likely to be interested in me”. And I doubt anyone is lowering their expectations or being less picky. Some gay people do decide to move to other cities where they feel there might be a more tolerant atmosphere for their minority, like SF or P-town. But again, that varies from person to person. There are women that go to lesbian bars to hook up, and there are those who don’t.

    My point is that a book doesn’t have to address the issue of being lesbian just because the character is lesbian. There’s nothing that makes lesbians “unique” other than the fact that they are women who like women. All other differences are the same differences that every other person has.

    It’s different if a book featured a character from a minority group, and that character has something that affects them physically, mentally, spiritually, or culturally, like a character who’s autistic, or someone who’s Jewish. Then I think it’s fair to expect the author to flesh out the part of that character’s experiences that come from being autistic or Jewish.

    I’m Asian and I immigrated to the US, so the way I live my life is different from most people who are originally born in the US. But several of my friends (Asian) are 3rd generation, 4th generation US citizens, and you really couldn’t tell from their homes, the way they dress, or anything else, that might suggest they’re “Asian”. The only thing that makes you certain they’re Asian are their skin color and in almost all other ways, they’re just like everyone else. The only thing that makes me different is that I wasn’t born in the US, so that difference in culture makes me different, not my skin color.

  51. OK, so I’m perhaps not as frustrated as ben, but I’m kind of frustrated….

    I understand that the story, as it stands, includes a lesbian love story which is not at all viewed as odd in the context of the story, something I think is awesome. LGBT relationships NOT being something people freak out about would indeed be a welcome element in all kinds of fiction.

    BUT…Ms. Lo added this AFTER she wrote the initial story. This was a change to her initial idea…

    What was the initial idea? WHY did Ms. Lo rewrite the Cinderella story? What did she add BEFORE she added the Lesbian relationship?

    I mean, there are a lot of Cinderella retellings out there, what made this one unique before the LBGT elements entered into it?

    Or is that not a valid question?

  52. I grant that there are some individuals who have so assimilated with the majority/dominant group as to be relatively indistinguishable from them (Irish and Italians in America, for instance.)

    However, I’d hesitate to say that that’s a common enough experience in any metaculture as to be useful in a fictional context. It’s actually more likely that a writer who writes such homogenized characters is being lazy or trying, in a backhanded and inept way, to “honor” her characters by homogenizing them instead of drawing characters who are truly assimilated.

    (I’ll also note that there’s a legitimate argument to be made–though not one I’m equipped to make in full–that assimilated members of a minority are often not that way out of their own choice, but out of generations of cultural pressure to subsume their “differences” in favor of blending in. Entire languages and religions have been wiped out this way.)

  53. Caitlin – like it or not, society right now treats lesbians (and GBT folk) in a specific and different way than it treats heterosexuals. While it’s not a unique thing, it’s different from life as a heterosexual.

  54. Tal@60: But there is simply going to be more to their being Jewish than just a name, and creating a character that’s a Gentile named Goldberg just doesn’t fly.

    Uh, I very strongly and angrily agree with you?

    Not sure what you’re looking for here.

    Also, I’ve seen you make the argument at 55 before, and it was bad idealism then, too.

    Thank you for sharing your opinion about my opinion.

    it would definitely not be lovely if our differences were completely erased, or subsumed into a formless whole, in the goal of reducing persecution.

    For a person of color, a thousand years from now, how exactly would that show up???

    Sometime in the future, someone will be born black in a world where the color of their skin doesn’t mean anything to anyone. What exactly are they going to hold on to about being black?

    I’m not saying everyone becomes some kind of new human with a single color, hermaphrodite, bisexuals, so that we’re all the same. People are different. It’s just that no one cares about those differences.

    The goal, in other words, is not to give a lesbian the “honor” of seeing her just like a straight woman, but to acknowledge that she is lesbian, and that she is necessarily different from straight women, and that’s not a bad thing.

    Uh, I think the fact that she falls in love with another woman (i.e. she’s not a straight woman) and nobody persecutes her for it (not a bad thing), pretty much sums that up.

    What else does she need to do other than fall in love with a woman to be a lesbian? a specific example of some action she might do might help clarify. Because it seems to me that we’re saying exactly the same thing, but at the same time you seem quite angry at me about it.

    I think many people automatically see “different” or “minority” as some sort of bad thing that automatically earns marginalization. But it’s not, and shouldn’t be. Diversity is a good thing.

    I most strongly and forcefully agree with you.

    are we Fonzi?

    Tal@64: In the lesbian example, merely being in the minority is going to make a difference even if only because her options for partners will be limited in a way that isn’t the same for straight women.

    I’m a little fuzzy on teh whole “cinderalla” mythology, but I think the mythology sort of hinges on that old “there’s one special person out there for us” approach.

    Seriously, your attitude is not fixed by your circumstances. Cancer patients may have a depressed and cynical view on life or a “grab life while I still have time” view on life. Same goes for relationships. People view life with an attitude of scarcity or abundance that can be rather independent of their circumstances.

    Certainly one could argue statistically there is some tracking, but we’re talking about an individual character, and an individual character can be anywhere on the statistical bell curve. Sometimes being in an odd spot on teh curve is what makes the character or story interesting. for an extreme example, see “Life is Beautiful”.

    As far as the 10% thing goes, the character might look at it as a purely statistical approach and be all depressed about it, or the character might look at it as if there is one perfect person out their for them, and there is one perfect person out there for everyone else, so they’ve got teh same challenge everyone else does, so hop to it.

    If the world the story takes place in does NOT have people of the particular minority group persecuted in any way, then it isn’t too hard to imagine that individuals can create their own interpretation of the world that is somewhat independent of their statistical circumstances and more a reflection of their personality.

    Put another way, every character in Winnie the Pooh is in approximately the same set of circumstances, yet Eoyore has a completely different attitude about life than Tigger, who has a completely different personality than, say, Piglet.

    (who is charming enough to cease to be filthy)

    Craig@65: I’ll defer to secular, non-observant persons of Jewish descent who might have a stack of bones to pick with you on that point.

    Judaism is a religion. Catholocism is a religion. Protestentism is a religion. If my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are Catholic, that doesn’t mean I’m Catholic.

    If someone is Jewish, that indicates their religious beliefs. A guy of Irish heritage might convert to Judaism on getting married. (I know one who did) If a person is “nonobservant”, then that means they observe no religious rituals with which to set them apart from others.

    No different than someone who grew up in a catholic home but doesn’t go to church as an adult. A non observant catholic won’t do anything that sets them apart as “catholic” because their catholocism is purely defined by their observance of catholic rituals.

    It is only the stereotype that says someone of “jewish decent” looks a certain way or talks a certain way or acts a certain way. Anyone can become Jewish by sincerely adopting the religious beliefs and observances.

    Depending on who you ask, in the Jewish religion, once you are a Jew, you’re always a Jew. But some (including the Israeli government) say that if you convert to another religion, you are no longer a Jew.

    But Christianity has similar issues about where the line to get in and get out is drawn. With different answers depending on who you ask.

    You see, that’s where getting your label-maker out starts getting problematic, if not downright offensive.

    I’m not sure how saying Judaism is a religion would be problematic and I definitely don’t see that as offensive.

    If some character in a story is not observing any of the religious ceremonies in Judaism, he wouldn’t be doing anything that would set him apart from any other religious-neutral character. And if you have a character who the author says is Jewish but doesn’t do anything that observes the religion in anyway, then the only other option to make the character more than a token would be to show him suffer some form of anti-semitism.

    If the character doesn’t observe any religious ceremonies and doesn’t experience any prejudice from other characters, what exactly does declaring him a Jew do for the story? My first reaction would be the author thought he’d slap a label on the character to declare him Jewish, but then didn’t do any research so that the character would do anything that would either show the effects of his religious beliefs or show discrimination he might experience.

    If you have a novel and in the first paragraph say the main character is Jewish, but then for the rest of the novel we see nothing of his religion and nothing to show anyone relating to him differently because he is Jewish, what exacty is the point? From a story=telling point of view it’s a gun on a mantlepiece that never gets fired. Information that makes no difference.

    JimR@67: What was the initial idea? WHY did Ms. Lo rewrite the Cinderella story? What did she add BEFORE she added the Lesbian relationship?

    I think it’s all explained in the original post. She wrote a standard version of Cinderella, i.e. hetero. but the characters took over and wrote it differently. Characters sometimes do that to the author. I think if you really have fleshed out characters, they’ll do it every time. Maybe not to such an extreme, but they start getting minds of their own and they don’t really care what plot you wanted them to follow, they’ll follow the plot they want. I think she started fleshing out the characters and tried to force them into a straight relationship, but they weren’t playing their parts very convincingly. They wanted a different outcome, so she wrote it that way.

  55. Josh:

    Yes, that’s the way it is right now. I’m not trying to negate the fact that LGBT people face discrimination.

    All my responses were to Tal, who said, “In a case like this, the danger is in creating a lesbian who could be mistaken for straight if not for the fact that she’s sexually attracted to other women.” (comment 36).

    Because yeah, a lesbian can be “mistaken for straight” if not for the fact that she’s attracted to women. There’s nothing else that makes a lesbian different from a straight person. And in this case, it doesn’t matter because it’s in a world where no one bats an eye at the fact that she’s a lesbian.

    I just didn’t agree with the fact that being lesbian or being a person of color HAS to mean that you are somehow different from other people. Because the only thing that’s different is your sexual orientation or skin color. If you plop them in a world where no one is discriminated against because they’re gay or black or female, then you just have a regular fairytale. I just don’t understand what element the author has to add to make the lesbian character more lesbian. There’s no “heteronormative pitfall” (comment 36) when being lesbian is norm.

  56. Josh@70: Caitlin – like it or not, society right now treats lesbians (and GBT folk) in a specific and different way than it treats heterosexuals. While it’s not a unique thing, it’s different from life as a heterosexual.

    that’s totally irrelevant to this story. The author declares by fiat that the story takes place in a world where nobody cares about your sexual orientation.

    In that world, what does a lesbian do besides fall in love with another woman to demonstrate her “lesbianess”?

    What you’re talking about is how OTHER PEOPLE treat the lesbian main character. What I’m asking for is what the lesbian character HERSELF would do that would demonstrate her lesbian-ness, besides falling in love with another woman?

    Is she going to eat her pancakes differently that a straight woman? WHat does she do differntly?

    As far as I can see, the answer to that question is simple: Nothing.

    In a world where everyone treats a lesbian woman the same as a straight woman, the only way to distinguish a lesbian from straight is to have the lesbian fall in love with a woman. Everything else is open. The lesbian could do anything that the straight woman could do. There is NOTHING that the lesbian MUST DO that MUST be DIFFERENT than the straight woman.

    I would challenge anyone who disagrees to start first with one specific action the lesbian must do that the straight woman would not (besides fall in love with another woman).

  57. JimR: “Retelling a fairy tale” is a fine starting point. They are, after all, classic stories, and one can do all kinds of things with them. There isn’t always a Big Idea driving a work forward, and “a fairy tale with a mortal/fae love triangle and a society with features I’d like to write about” is as solid a foundation as many fine works have.

    Tal: It seems like you’re raising concerns about a kind of book Lo doesn’t say she’s writing. She’s not talking, as nearly as I can tell, about making the subject of one’s love and desire irrelevant, but rather about making it not the target of any innate hostility or persecution. That still leaves room for all the nuances and complications that can afflict any love at all. To me, at least, saying “this love is accepted as as obviously valid as others” is not saying “this love is precisely like all others, and it doesn’t actually matter that it’s another woman”.

    But a bunch of us now have it or have it coming, so we can revisit this with actual information soon.

  58. You can write a book about a lesbian who is seen completely like everyone else except their sexual preference, or you can make it affect every aspect of people’s reactions to them. Either way gets people mad: either you get called out for having token lesbians, or else someone will accuse you of treating homosexuals like they’re not normal.

  59. If we assume that people are in some sense made by their experiences than it stands to reason that that there will be differences between people, straight and gay, for purely functional reasons as there are inherent differences in their experiences even without all the baggage of homophobia.

    * First, if we posit that there are differences in the way the average woman and the average man acts, it is likely true that the dynamics of a two woman or a two man relationship is going to be different from the dynamics of a man/woman relationship. (And note that that this is magnified if the sexes aren’t treated equally by the culture, even if sex preferences are treated equally.)

    * Second, homosexual couples cannot directly reproduce, which means that raising kids is different. For a homosexual couple, it takes much more conscious action to either adopt or use some artificial means. There aren’t going to be “accidental” pregnancies. As an example, some lesbian friends of mine “took turns” getting pregnant. That’s a dynamic my wife and I couldn’t experience.

    * Third, the pool of likely sex partners is substantially lower for someone who is homosexual. Assuming a probably high number of 10% for the homosexual population: heterosexual men and women, 45% of the population is a potential sex partner while for homosexual men and women, it is 5%. There will either have to be some cultural signals put out to signal sexuality or gay men and women will experience much more rejection. Either way, it is a difference in experience.

    * Fourth, because of the minority position, people will be assumed not to be straight, even if this holds no directly negative baggage. For instance, people are assumed to be right-handed, which makes the life experience of lefties different. Straight single men don’t have to explain to their coworkers that they don’t want to be set up with the secretary’s brother.

    * Fifth, if the society has an gender differentiation, as ares does (separate locker rooms/bathrooms/etc.) than there is a difference in the proximity of potential sex partners. (I used to go to a gym that was heavily used by gays in San Francisco (though not particularly as a “meet market”) and the different dynamics in the locker room there vs. the YMCA in the burbs was fascinating.)

    None of the above has anything to do with societal acceptance of homosexuality. It all directly follows from human sex differences and biology.

  60. In my serial web-drama, set in a world with eight sentient species, homosexuality within a species isn’t a bit noteworthy. Cross-species relationships (whatever sexes are involved) are despised, though. Which makes for a useful collection of doom.

  61. Elizabeth Bear writes some wonderful fantasy with all types of sexual orientations. Try her Ink and Steel series, or maybe Dust.

  62. Joten @76: You can write a book about a lesbian who is seen completely like everyone else except their sexual preference, or you can make it affect every aspect of people’s reactions to them.

    Or you can, as I’ve pointed out, not do either of those things, and instead write a lesbian character who is neither all-but-straight nor consumed by her lesbianism to the exclusion of all other personality traits.

    Y’know. How actual lesbians are in reality.

  63. Ceri B. @ 74 Tal: It seems like you’re raising concerns about a kind of book Lo doesn’t say she’s writing.

    Which is why I’ve said (several times) that I’m not knocking this particular book or author.

    I’m only cautioning other writers (who may be reading this) that writing minority characters who are fully assimilated and indistinguishable from the majority is not, in fact, making a lot of progress toward being minority-inclusive in their stories.

    Assimilation is not acceptance of diversity. Creating a character who’s just like the majority but for one thing is doing them (and the readers they are meant to represent) no favors.

  64. Also, what Steve said above.

    If there is something about you that is different enough from the majority as to alter your day-to-day life, it is necessarily going to shape who you are as a person, even if there’s no persecution whatsoever for that trait.

    It will shape different people in different ways, because everyone’s other life experiences and backgrounds are different, but there will not be no effect.

  65. “Or you can, as I’ve pointed out, not do either of those things, and instead write a lesbian character who is neither all-but-straight nor consumed by her lesbianism to the exclusion of all other personality traits.

    Y’know. How actual lesbians are in reality.”

    Just curious, what exactly about the original description of the book makes you think that the author did NOT do this?

    There seems to be an awful lot of discussion here about ways to do characters badly. I don’t like characters based on stereotypes or done in a “lazy” way either, but I don’t see what that has to do with the premise of this book. Certainly you can have a world in which same-sex love is regarded as perfectly normal, while at the same time drawing your main character as a real person and not one-dimensional or just a “token”.

    I guess I’m kind of confused about why a world in which same-sex love is not reviled would somehow mean that the characters must be badly done and uninteresting and not presented as “real lesbians.”

    Since everyone commenting here has not, you know, actually read the book to see how the characters are presented. Maybe they ARE presented as lesbians actually are in reality. Minus the bigotry that us real ones have to put up with.

  66. SaraS @ 84: Just curious, what exactly about the original description of the book makes you think that the author did NOT do this?

    Please point out where anything I’ve said was directed at this particular book and/or author.

  67. I know you said your comments weren’t directed at this book/author, although I didn’t see 82 till after I posted.

    But I guess I was under the impression that something in the original post/description of the book sparked your initial concern about how minority characters are portrayed, thus leading to your first post in this thread.

    In other words, I assumed that this conversation had at least SOMETHING to do with the original post (or at least started from the original post), and wasn’t just something completely unrelated and out of the blue. Perhaps I was wrong about that. If so, sorry for the misunderstanding.

    Getting back to the actual book: I get to read about (and experience in real life) plenty of anti-gay bigotry, so a world in which such a thing doesn’t exist sounds like an interesting change of place to read about.

  68. Josh Jasper mentioned Ellen Kushner’s books. Which leads me to a suggestion for Malindo Lo: if you’ve never read a single fantasy novel in which there were any queer characters, that suggests that either (a) you’ve never read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, or (b) you don’t think of it as fantasy.

    If you haven’t read it, you should. Whether or not you want to call it fantasy, it’s a really good book.

  69. Putting aside the fact that no one here (as far as I can tell) has read Ms. Lo’s book, I thought I’d toss out a couple of things for consideration:

    re: a world in which LGBT is not discriminated against not being interesting (to me or not to me).

    As a reader, one person might be interested in seeing how an LGBT character struggles with the same or different prejudices in their world as a mirror/prism/glass to understanding LGBT struggles in the real world. Another might find the lack of LGBT struggle an interesting contrast for what reality offers. These two perspectives are simply, as with all reading, a matter of preference and interest, but if done well, both can be well-written and informative (or, gods forfend, entertaining) regardless. And both can be interesting regardless as well.

    To be coy, the anatomy of the book (i.e., includes LGBT characters) does not have to dictate the expression of the story (i.e., LGBT characters must struggle for acceptance).

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  70. @Steven Burnap:

    You bring up something I completely overlooked. You’re right: the matter of children would definitely be different. But the dynamics of a relationship (whether straight or gay) would all vary based on what kind of culture you live in.

    @SaraS:

    “Since everyone commenting here has not, you know, actually read the book to see how the characters are presented.”

    I think this discussion is game considering the topic of the post is the “Big Idea,” which happens to be a lesbian love story in a fairytale world where all sexual orientations are socially accepted. We don’t HAVE to have read the book to have a discussion about the big idea. If only the people who’ve read the book get to comment, you wouldn’t get as many responses to the post.

  71. Caitlin: Yep.

    SaraS: This isn’t a standalone post on a single book. It’s part of an ongoing topic of conversation about minority representation in SFF.

    One of the key points of this conversation (back in the middle of RaceFail earlier this year) was about writers learning how to tread the line between stereotyping and characters who may as well be (dominant group) and who thus get read as such, rendering them basically invisible.

    (Or: If a dark-skinned heroine is only described as dark-skinned on page 4 and then her race is completely ignored for the rest of the book, is she actually making any progress toward increasing representation of dark-skinned protagonists?)

  72. I have only one problem with this Big Idea.

    “I had never read a single fantasy novel in which there were any queer characters”

    I’m sorry, but to me this just says that she’s not read a great deal. The Harry Potter series leaps to mind in recent times. How about The Winged Assassin? Less well known would be the Nightrunner series. These are just the books I can think of in a spare moment at work.

  73. Caitlin @ 61

    Tal’s example might be more accurate if he used a food allergy rather than vegetarianism as a mechanism. Or at least more useful.

  74. Tal @ 90

    Did I read this correct? You decided to try to hijack the thread because you didn’t get enough controversy a few months back?

  75. Richard Morgan’s, “The Steel Remains” is a damn good fantasy novel where one of the main characters is homosexual. And a war hero. It’s really a very interesting read. Unfortunately there is a bit of homophobia in this world, and it’s riveting during the by-play between homophobic father and War-Hero Homosexual son.

  76. Nargel @ 93 – Actually, that’s the opposite of hijacking a thread – it’s tying it in to a history of other threads, and explaining why it’s important to people who have a history here. Implying it was done because Tal “didn’t get enough controversy a few months back” is rude. Now, rudeness like that certainly *is* a form of derailing – it’s picking a fight.

  77. Scott @ 91: I don’t think Rowling pointing out that Dumbledore was gay after the series ended counts, no. Your other recommendations stand!

  78. Tal@90: This isn’t a standalone post on a single book.

    It certainly looks like one.

    It’s part of an ongoing topic of conversation about minority representation in SFF. One of the key points of this conversation (back in the middle of RaceFail earlier this year)

    Ah, so, when you posted this:

    Tal@36: Much as I hate to bring it up, I’m reminded ever-so-slightly of a topic discussed during RaceFail:

    you were really saying “Forget this thread, I want to talk about RaceFail”

    Instead of being “ever so slightly” reminded of racefail, you wanted to ignore Malinda Lo’s book completely and start talking about hypothetical books that don’t even exist, and critique them for potentially not doing a lesbian character properly?

    Jeebus.

    Next time you want to hijack a thread, you might want to be a little more honest about it and drop the “I hate to bring it up” and the “ever so slightly” trying to downplay what you’re really doing.

  79. Persia @ 97 re Dumbledore. I agree it was never plainly stated in the series, but it was implied in the seventh book in the discussions of his great friendship with Grindelwald. While not a blatant example I don’t know if it can be dismissed entirely.

  80. All this discussion has been tickling my brain with something, so I went and tracked it down. Here’s a quote from the film “Lost and Delirious” (may have different titles in other countries) from 2001. Note that all characters mentioned are female.

    “Paulie: Lesbian? Lesbian? Are you fucking kidding me, you think I’m a LESBIAN?

    Mouse: You’re a girl in love with a girl, aren’t you?

    Paulie: No! I’m PAULIE in love with TORI. Remember? And Tori, she is, she IS in love with me because she is mine and I am hers and neither of us are LESBIANS!”

    For me, I think this would be about the most satisfying direction for the story to take. Two characters who are not defining themselves as gay or straight, but are simply in love with each other.

  81. Tal: Hoping not to add to the dogpile here…

    I have read a lot more sf and horror than fantasy or romance, so I know I’m ignorant about a lot of things. Given that your concern is less about Ash in particular than the general state of the field, I’d be obliged if you could point at some works that do fall into the kind of trap you’re describing. I ask this because I have in mind a fantasy story with a large romantic element and all or mostly LGBT major characters. So I’m reading a bunch to sharpen my awareness of possibilities. Good recommendations I have, but I’ve been actually wanting to read a few stories that do the lives of LGBT characters in substantially less prejudiced societies badly, too, to get a better sense of what some of the pitfalls look like in practice.

    So, yeah, I actually am asking you (and anyone else reading) who knows of badly liberation-minded fantasy (and paranormal romance) t suggest some authors and/or titles.

    If anyone wants to avoid slagging on works here, by all means, feel free to to drop me e-mail; ceri dot b at me dot com works just fine. Thank you, really.

  82. This sounds like a great story, I love fairy tale retellings.

    But as for no LGBT characters in SFF http://feministsf.org/bibs/lgbt.html
    I think there is a few hundred books on that page it’s not exactly non existent.

    Just from my reading, Mcaffrey’s Pern has implied accepted homosexuality, (when dragons mate, their riders do too, and since both female and male dragons have male riders well..)

    Jacqueline Carey has 9 out of 11 books where the protagonist is bisexual (Kushiel)

    Two of Richards mord-sith (female) bodyguards in the very famous Sword of truth series by Terry Goodkind are in a relationship.

    As mentioned before Mercedes Lackey and Lynn Flewelling also write gay characters

    If she hasn’t read any she hasn’t been looking very hard, or at all IMHO.

  83. re: Dumbledore was gay.

    I think he’s a poor example of a gay–capital G–character in fantasy precisely because his gayness (in a world that apparently isn’t too keen on it) does not inform his actions in the book.

    Sure, the Grindelwald connection is there and implied, but it’s not explicit and, I think, was a conscious decision by the author for it not to be–a sort of meta closetness of an author hesitant to have her very popular character come out perhaps–to say nothing of it happening in the very last book and needing to be explained outside the book. But that statement, I think, presumes to know Rowling’s mind, which is unfair of me. If I was to defend her, which I would, Rowling actually makes a stronger point by doing what she did. We only see Dumbledore at work and he does a damned fine job that has nothing (explicit, visible) with being gay. That’s an argue the LGBT community makes all the time.

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s a major failing per se. Other major characters in the series do not couple off or have their orientation discussed either. OTOH, Rowling didn’t feel the need to announce they were hetero either.

    Which leads me back to Lo’s Big Idea–she’s putting it out there and moving on with her story (I assume). It’s been done. But then she’s pushing it further by presupposing a world in which LBGT isn’t an issue. Which is refreshing.

  84. The Kushiel series is a favorite of mine when it comes to handling sexuality. Within the constraints of an aristocratic social system, it seems that pretty much every orientation is okay in the sense of having a place somewhere and those who specialize in dealing with it seen as occupying reasonable, worthwhile social niches. Differences in orientation are differences of equal moral weight, not a hierarchy of virtue. (I also find the theological fantasy underlying this fascinating. It’s like gnosticism pulled inside out.) And within all this there’s plenty of room for desire unrequited, desire unwanted, power games manipulating others’ loves and fears, and a whole bunch else. Carey gives us the full spread of love and sex used for good and evil even with a particular set of prejudices removed.

    She also writes like a junior-league Tanith Lee, and I mean that as praise. I’m not always up for it, but sometimes it’s great to just wade in and savor the dense exotic lushness of it all.

  85. Re: Hijacking
    The whole “Big Idea” thing is an offshoot of the ongoing conversation about minority representation in SFF. So, no.

    Re: GLBT characters in SFF
    Yes, there are many. Some drawn better than others. And no, Dumbledore most definitely does not count.

  86. “I had never read a single fantasy novel in which there were any queer characters”

    I’m sorry, but to me this just says that she’s not read a great deal. The Harry Potter series leaps to mind in recent times.

    Depends on what you define as canon. I don’t take interviews as canon; I choose not to believe that Luna married and settled down or that Neville married Hannah Abbott. If the author didn’t feel it was important enough to put in the books – if everything she wrote about equality and judging people for what they do rather than for how they were born is secondary to keeping those few homophobic readers – what kind of progress is that?

  87. If you can’t tell from the events in a book that a character is gay, and it’s never mentioned, it’s not really there.

    You might as well say that Harry Potter deals with the trauma of learning you’re infected with HIV because, logically, some Muggle somewhere in the fictional Potterverse went through that while the events of the story were going on. It’s logical to say those sorts of things are probably happening in that fictional world, but it’s not a part of the story.

    And I’m sorry, but Dumbledore having a fashion sense and a strong emotional connection to a male friend does NOT in itself indicate that he’s gay. And as it never comes up in the story, even tangentially, it has no actual existence.

    It’s not clear to me that the sexual orientation of anyone should have been an element of the story, but heterosexual student relationships are mentioned multiple times. To the best of my knowledge, there were no homosexual relationships referenced, even casually.

    Thus: there are no visible gay characters in the Harry Potter books, so effectively there are no gays. Just as effectively HIV does not exist there, and the books say nothing about AIDS.

  88. The whole “Big Idea” thing is an offshoot of the ongoing conversation about minority representation in SFF. So, no.

    Er, what now? The “Big Idea” has been a feature of Whatever for quite some time, and if it was launched as part of this conversation you’re referring to, that certainly was not at all obvious. Nor is it part of the description of “The Big Idea” on Whatever’s main page:

    What’s the big idea behind The Big Idea? It’s authors discussing what makes their books tick — and what that meant for the writing process.

    Not that I mind the conversation in the least. I am just still wondering what about this particular entry seemed to spark it. Just the fact that it is a book with a lesbian character?

  89. Just the fact that it is a book with a lesbian character?

    I think it was a lesbian character in a world where sexual orientation didn’t matter to anyone.

    A common portrayal of gay characters in fiction is to have them be the distraught one who commits suicide by the end or something like that. It sounds like when Malinda first thought about converting the main character to a lesbian, she almost went down the path of having cinderella deal with a bunch of homophobic assholes in teh world. But then she switched to keeping in line with the “happily ever after” theme. No one hassled Cinderella for her orientation in the original. It was evil stepmother just being evil. And viola, a big idea: A lesbian main character in a world where no one cares about your sexual orientation and a happily ever after ending.

  90. @ scalzi – can you clear up for me if we’re topic drifting by invoking ideas from racefail in relation to talking about our feelings on Ash? That accusation was made, and I’d like to know hat you think about it, this being your blog and all. Obviously, I’ll respect your interpretation.

  91. I keep wondering if Ash falls in love with the handsome princess or if it’s someone else. Guess I’ll have to wait until the book shows up.

  92. from the original post:

    Ash, the Cinderella character, fell in love with the prince. …. rewrite it so that Ash falls in love with a woman.

  93. Here is a general statement. I speak for no one but myself. And I think after this I will not say anymore.

    With the disclaimer that of course this is the Internet and we are therefore all strangers, and I don’t know (and ideally should probably not need to know) who is in what group: I have grown extremely wary of people not-in-the-group offering helpful commentary on how people-in-the-group should talk and write about themselves under the banner of being an “ally.” I am all too often amazed and appalled by (to extrapolate from my own situation, as I must) what various reviewers and commenters who are not black will deem “not black enough,” and I find myself, all too often, very hurt and upset, and boxed in by the occasional slightly-overzealous ally’s assumptions about and definitions of me and mine that often do not fit, that fly directly in the face of my reality, even. As if they truly were expecting me to be a different species, expose some magnificent, exotic and alien thing beneath my physicality.

    Restricting myself solely to commenting on Lo’s book, and not on principles of writing in general: I feel that if Lo in particular wants to write a book where sexual orientation is not an issue, it’s reasonable to guess that maybe she, as a self-identified queer, more than likely sees such fiction as a welcome respite. And maybe she is not alone. As a person of color who is constantly confronted with how my blackness makes me strange and different and scary (often, again, in direct contradiction of reality) and who is extremely stressed out by it rather a lot, I can quite easily see how such a respite, to see oneself as the norm for a change, to exist, if only temporarily, in a place where ill-treatment and foreignness was NOT the defining characteristic and was NOT expected to permeate every aspect of one’s existence, fantastical though it might be, might have immense appeal, and I sure as hell will not begrudge the appeal of that sort of story to Lo, or any LGBTet cetera who might share those feelings.

    (Speaking, I stress, strictly of this topic, and of Lo, and of my own feelings and no one else’s.)

    Hi! I’m black! My hair’s really curly and tends to be dry, and I don’t get sunburned. (And a couple other things, maybe.) Pretty much everything else is something that people have inflicted on me, artificial, outside influence or societal construct, and not an inherent function of my body, my soul, or myself — and I don’t have to carry it into my fantasy stories if I don’t want to, and I prefer to grant the same freedom and license to people who belong to groups that I might not belong to.

  94. GregLondon@71: Judaism is a religion, yes. But “Jew” is not exactly equivalent to “adherent of Judaism”. (The existence of Jews for Jesus should be enough to demonstrate that.)

    The Jews are not just believers in a common faith; they’re a people, a nation in the old sense, an ethnos. There is history that is not just religion, and a culture that is not just stereotypes or keeping kosher. It’s a subculture, but also sort of a superculture, since it spans the Diaspora and has its own subcultures..

    According to Jewish tradition, if your mother was a Jew, then you are a Jew, even if you are baptized and go to Mass every week, or an atheist, or so ignorant of Jewish ritual you don’t know Shabbos from Shoggoth.

    There are even whole synagogues of Jewish atheists, which may sound oxymoronic, but they’re exercising the social rather than the worship function of the organization.

    Which just shows how even seemingly simple and obvious definitions can clash with cultural reality.

  95. *idly considers a running tally, just to see how much money buying Scalzi’s featured Big Idea books costs me in a year…*

    this one looks good. thanks for the heads up!

  96. Mark: According to Jewish tradition, if your mother was a Jew, then you are a Jew, even if you are baptized and go to Mass every week

    “Jewish tradition” is part of Jewish religion. And Jewish religion is whatever the particular subgroup believes in. And, as I mentioned, anyone can become a Jew by sincerely adopting the religion. And different groups have different traditions. And as I also mentioned before, Israel has a different view on who is a Jew from the tradition you just mentioned.

    Which just shows how even seemingly simple and obvious definitions can clash with cultural reality.

    Tell me how you intend to define “Jew” as an ethnos after you’ve had this go on for a few hundred years.

    Quote: “The high rate of infertility and the onus on Jews to procreate has put Israel, not surprisingly, at the forefront of infertility treatment, with the most fertility clinics per capita in the world.”

    Not to mention that I’d be willing to wager a dollar that quite a few people who have no lineage to those who walked out of egypt have already gotten into the genetic pool of those who did. A lot can happen in a couple thousand years of plain old fashioned procreation.

    I was just watching a show on the discovery channel about something called the genographic project. genetically, we’re 99.9% alike. They did genetic testing on volunteers in Manhattan and found out where their genes historically came from. The genes of a black police officer could be traced back to central asia, i.e. white ancestors.

    Genome variation does not support the existence of different races.

    Anyone who thinks their race is “pure” is using a purely nonscientific assertion.

    about 75,000 years ago, after a massive volcano explosion, the total human population may have dropped to as low as 2,000 individuals.

    We’re all 99.9% alike, genetically speaking. And we’ve done a lot of intermixing back and forth since then.

    Any sort of biological “ethnic” definition of “Jew” executed on a genetic level would probably exclude half the people who currently call themselves Jewish. If not now, certainly within a hundred years or so with all the egg and sperm donors being used, and the inter-faith marriages, and so on.

    From a biological point of view, we have physical differences due to a tiny percentage of genetic variation, which means the idea of “ethnicity” is more a matter of discrimination than of biology. At some point in the future, one can hope that discrimination essentially disappears, and we’re left with being physically different and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone.

    At which point, what’s left is our cultural differences. The way we are brought up. The beliefs we hold. The notions we have. The religions we observe. And so on.

    “Race” doesn’t really matter biologically. We’re too similar genetically to even define race. Race matters only because discrimination exists. And discrimination exists because people invent the notion of race and make it mean something like “I’m better than you” or “My race is better than yours”.

    When people stop caring about skin color, the world we’ll have is one where “race” is irrelevant and the only differences we’ll see is cultural.

    So, if you want to keep alive the notion that some strain of ethniticity is “different” than everyone else, “separate from” everyone else, then I don’t think that is supported by genetic differences. And I’m not really sure what the point would be if it were true. Say some group is found to have significantly different genes than anyone else. So what? Do they get different rights? fewer rights? More rights? Are they more “pure” somehow? Less pure?

    The physical differences only matter so long as discrimination exists. And it really only matters to the people doing the discrimination.

    genetically, and biologically, its irrelevant. The only thing that differentiates us is our beliefs, our culture, our minds.

  97. Josh Jasper @ 96

    See GregLondon @ 98. That is how I saw it. I asked the question I did to see if I had really read what he said correctly. You tell me that doing it that way is rude. Allright, I apologize. I’ll even admit that I was a bit shorter than I should have been because, in his single minded pursuit of a point from months ago, he was ignoring legitimate responses and disagreements to his current statements.

    How should I have asked the question then?

  98. SaraS @ 109

    The Big Idea was around for years before the “ongoing conversation” even started, as far as I know. I may be off a bit here, as my knowledge of the whole Racefail thing is, what, less than a year old and it may have been around in its current form somewhat longer than i am aware of. While I’m sure the questions the Racefail discussions are involving have been around longer than either of the two, I am also sure that The Big Idea series is much the elder of the two.

  99. Greg: boy howdy did you misinterpret what I said! Who said anything about genetics? Or racial purity? The tradition I mentioned may be based on biology (matrilineage) but even if there were such a thing as race on a genetic level, it would be gone after just a few halvings when a Jewish woman married a Gentile man!
    I’m just talking about cultural identity, identification with the group, which is as much about self-perception as anything else. If your goal is to eradicate all such groupings, then good luck with that. I’d rather see people learn to celebrate their differences even as they recognize that we’re all fundamentally the same. I don’t want to eliminate groups – just stop folks from equating “other” with “inferior”.
    Anyway, my entire point was just that it’s an oversimplification to equate Jewishness with the religion. That’s only a part of the picture. I was trying to be inclusive, not exclusive. Sure, people who didn’t grow up in the culture but convert to Judaism in adulthood are still Jews, no matter who their mother is. But so are the people who grew up in the culture but reject the religion. Different subclasses, different facets of the Jewish world. You’ll find people who reject either of the above inclusions, but I think you’re missing a big chunk of reality if you do so.

  100. Mark: boy howdy did you misinterpret what I said!

    WHat you said was this:

    The Jews are not just believers in a common faith;

    Which I take to mean religious beliefs isn’t what defines “Jew”.

    they’re a people, a nation in the old sense, an ethnos

    When I hear a “people”, a “nation in the old sense”, an “ethnos”, I start hearing a biological definition.

    I’m taking this in part because
    GregLondonon@57: “Well, a Jewish character would observe Jewish holidays and traditions to some degree or another, or they wouldn’t be Jewish.”

    And the Craig@65 disagreed with me. I explained in #71 that it is purely a matter of the persons beliefs, not anything physical. To which you apparently disagreed in @116 by saying a “people”, a “nation in the old sense”, an “ethnos”. To me, that’s arguing for some biological definition. You also said that anyone with a Jewish mother is a Jew (more biological definitions) but you didn’t mention that not every Jew uses that definition, you didn’t mention the cultural definition of “Jew”.

    So, if you didn’t mean some sort of purely biological defintion of “Jew”, then I’m sorry, but that’s exacty what I read from your post based on your choice of words, your choice of things you didn’t mention, and the context of the other posts.

    I believe I’d mentioned something about a person who grows up in a devout Catholic famiy, but becomes a non-catholic. You wouldn’t call him “catholic”, even though he is going to be living in a culture of Catholicism because his entire family is Catholic.

  101. Greg@122:

    When I hear a “people”, a “nation in the old sense”, an “ethnos”, I start hearing a biological definition.

    Well, I wasn’t speaking biologically. I specifically avoided the word “race” in an attempt to sidestep any such implications. After all, Americans are “a people”, despite the vast array of different backgrounds.

    I’ll concede that “nation in the old sense” may have been a poor choice; what I have in mind is somewhere between the old and new definitions. Not a race, but not a state either.

    The word ethnos is just a direct borrowing of the Greek root behind “ethnic”, used both because it’s shorter than “ethnic group” and because the word “ethnic” has acquired some negative connotations due to associations with racist attitudes. But when “ethnic group” is used as a term of art in the social sciences, it means what I meant. Max Weber defined it as:

    [a group of humans] that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both [...] it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists.

    Wikipedia puts it more pithily:

    a group of humans whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage that is real or presumed.

    I think the point is that “common descent”/”heritage” is about shared history, not biology. Cultural, not genetic.

    I believe I’d mentioned something about a person who grows up in a devout Catholic famiy, but becomes a non-catholic. You wouldn’t call him “catholic”, even though he is going to be living in a culture of Catholicism because his entire family is Catholic.

    I know several such people, and they self-identify as “lapsed Catholics”. Is that a subset of Catholic?

    But all of this is utterly tangential to the post, and I’m going to stop trying to clarify what I wrote. At best, some future author will read this and avoid assuming that “Jewish” is just a religion. More likely, I’ve just managed to convince the Interwebs that I’m racist. (Well, more than usual, bearing in mind the lessons of RaceFail.)

    Either way, I love the concept for this book, and I look forward to reading it.

  102. “But all of this is utterly tangential to the post, and I’m going to stop trying to clarify what I wrote.”

    The proprietor thanks you and hopes others will follow your sterling example.

  103. Laurie Marks’ “Dancing Jack” is a fantasy where the culture is gender netural as to pairings.
    Funnily enough, the protagonist is also a woman named Ash. Though in her case it’s a title.
    Good book.

  104. Tanya Huff’s Quarter novels have quite a few accepted gay and lesbian couples— however, it is strongly implied that some countries are more accepting than others. I particularly like the implication that marriages of state can be set up between any two handy nobles, even if the ones in question don’t swing that way. Again, marrying for love is a recent concept, so it’s nice to see that taken to its logical extreme in a world where homosexuality is just the way it is.

    So now the question is— if Cinderella doesn’t fall in love with the prince, what are the implications if he still falls for her? Guess I’ll just have to get the book to find out.

  105. Well, I wasn’t speaking biologically. I specifically avoided the word “race” in an attempt to sidestep any such implications. After all, Americans are “a people”, despite the vast array of different backgrounds.

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