The Big Idea: Sharon Shinn
Everyone wants to be authentically themselves, but sometimes it can be dangerous to show your true colors. In author Sharon Shinn’s newest novel, The Shuddering City, everyone can express themselves as they truly are. Read on to see how they go about doing so.
A few years ago, I was at REI buying a stack of chemical foot warmers when the cashier said, “I didn’t know star captains got cold toes.” I stared at him uncomprehendingly a moment before I remembered that I was wearing my gray sweatshirt embroidered with the Starfleet Academy logo. Then I laughed and explained that I’d bought it at the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas many years ago. Wearing the shirt had marked me as a bit of an sf/f nerd, and the cashier had happily recognized a kindred spirit.
I think a lot about the sides of ourselves that we choose to show in public. In my new book, I had fun creating a system in which everyone uses bracelets as a way to introduce themselves to other people. On their left hands, they wear bands stamped with patterns that show their occupations—for instance, crossed swords if they’re soldiers, quatrefoils if they’re part of the temple. For their right hands, they design bracelets that supply more personal information. People who identify as men wear gold, people who identify as women wear silver, and they use the same metals to indicate the type of partners they’re attracted to.
So for instance, Pietro is a gay man who wears a bracelet made of woven strips of hammered gold. Madeleine, a straight woman, has commissioned a silver band inset with gold flowers. Whenever characters meet someone new, they try to surreptitiously check out the other person’s bracelets. Or sometimes not so surreptitiously. If it’s someone they might be interested in, they try to make sure their own jewelry is visible. Sometimes they even hold their arms out for inspection. It becomes a way of flirting.
One of my beta readers said, “I want a bracelet!” But of course, in the real world, we all have ways of showing off the sides of our personalities we want others to see.
Sometimes we do it through jewelry. Among the people I know are a Catholic who wears a crucifix, a Wiccan who wears a pentacle, and a pro-choice activist who wears a necklace with a charm shaped like a coat hanger.
Sometimes we do it through clothing. I figure I know at least something about a stranger if that other person is wearing a MAGA hat, a Black Girls Code T-shirt, a Harley-Davidson jacket, or a Cardinals baseball jersey. (Well, in St. Louis where I live, about half the population is dressed in Cardinals red, so maybe that doesn’t tell me too much.) I had a friend whose daughter had to switch high schools in the middle of the school year, and she was despondent because she hadn’t made any friends in her first two weeks. Then one day she wore a manga T-shirt to class, and suddenly she met all the cool people in the anime club. We display our passions in part because they help define us, and in part because they might help us connect with like-minded souls.
Most of the accouterments I’ve collected over the years show off an affection for certain kinds of pop culture. My T-shirts feature the Blue Sun logo, the Soft Kitty lyrics, and a Dunder Mifflin nametag. I still have an old feminist “Eve Chose Consciousness” shirt from my college days. (It no longer fits.) My Cardinals paraphernalia ranges from clothing to jewelry to kitchenware. My first car sported an “I’ve Escaped with Blake’s 7” bumper sticker; the current bumper sticker says “COEXIST.”
None of these are likely to earn me any particular animosity. (Well, maybe the Cardinals gear. If I’m in Chicago.) But I know that displaying certain affiliations might rouse hatred or anger. In 2003, I put an anti-war sign in my front yard. It was torn down, so I put up another one. It was also torn down. I considered setting a third one behind my living room window, but decided I didn’t want to risk having a rock thrown through my window. Or worse. In a world where a woman runs over a teenager with her car because she “thought the girl looked Mexican,” where Wikipedia maintains a list of people who were attacked for being LGBT, you have to be careful about what how much of yourself you’re willing to show.
So I think many of us only display our true selves when we feel safe to do so. In the world I’ve created for my book, nobody cares about gender identity or sexual preference. I mean, they care insofar as they want to know where they might have a chance to develop a romantic relationship. But they’re not going to hunt somebody down or torture and kill someone just because that person is gay. They’ll just sigh over the sexy brown eyes that will never look their way.
I know that these outward symbols only tell us so much. People are way more complex than their love languages, their political parties, and their favorite TV shows. But I like the idea that—at least in an imaginary world—you can be free to be honest about who you are. There’s plenty of mystery left, if you’re safe enough to explore it.