“Why do you keep writing gay protagonists?”

schwellenbach-ebook-cover

Cover art by the always-incredible Lena Rushing and cover design by the incomparable Mignon Khargie (without whom this independent author path would be much, much more difficult). 

I’m still sort of embarrassed by how awed I felt when I first watched Mad Max: Fury Road. I was  31 years old and it was the first time it occurred to me that I might actually like action movies if there was a character that looked like, well, me. Not to suggest that I look anything like Charlize Theron—or any of the breeding wives, for that matteralthough I think I could pull off wind-worn desert octogenarian desert sage. But it meant something powerful and moving that there was suddenly a place for me—that a film was speaking to me rather than to the guy hogging the popcorn to my right.

I know what it feels like to be overlooked. At the same time, I recognize there are ways in which the vast majority of characters resemble me—straight and white—producing that same feeling of not quite belonging at a theoretically relaxing and familial institution like a movie theater for someone else.

My deep and abiding love for books, a relationship that I consider the cornerstone of my being, is based on seeing myself in so many strong, quirky, brilliant young women and deriving comfort and courage from this connection. Growing up, I saw so much of myself in Anne-with-an-e’s “scope for imagination” and infectious enthusiasm for life, and Jo March’s quick temper and tomboyish tendencies. In many ways, they wielded an influence over me that few “real” people could boast. I can’t and don’t want to imagine my life without them. And yet there are so many young girls who either struggle to find characters they can relate to, or simply accept the absence of an influence—a fictional mirror of sorts—that feels just right.

As a writer, it’s my responsibility to confront this privileged and skewed vision of reality—a world sadly absent any female, gay, and minority characters; or ,at least, characters of any particular significance. Of course, these books do exist. But they’re still disappointingly rare, and too often they’re classified as a niche of a niche, a single and very specific bookshelf in the far corner of the bookstore.

Several people—friends, progressive people who know me quite well, know my boyfriend, know all about white privilege and male privilege and every other manifestation of oppression, sometimes like to point out, somewhat slyly, that I’ve written not just one, but two, TWO, gay protagonists. What’s going on there? Is there something I’m trying to say? wink. wink. Something my boyfriend might not be happy to hear? nudge. nudge.

While I say plenty of things my boyfriend probably doesn’t want to hear, what I want to tell the people with raised eyebrows and smirking lips is that fiction writing is, by definition, an exercise of the imagination. But I don’t need an imagination to know what it feels like to be a human being. I think I would actually have more respect if they came right out—as they seem to think I am loathe to do—and asked the silly question: “What repressed desires or identity am I expressing with my gay protagonists?”

No one thought to ask JK Rowling whether she has some subconscious desire to be a boy. Or wizard. Or whether Tolstoy secretly longed to be a woman when he wrote Anna Karenina. Is the sole purpose of the author to create characters that are shadows of ourselves or who we would like to be? To a certain extent, and for some authors, yes; it’s natural to write characters with whom you identify. But there also has to be an element of ambition, of reaching beyond your own limited experiences and trying to discover and examine more of the world and humanity.

If anyone wants to know why Emily, my protagonist in Scourge of the Righteous Haddock, is a lesbian, I’ll give the terribly anticlimactic answer: I was looking for a way to distinguish my protagonist from the young adult heroines I already know and love. They were tomboys (Jo of Little Women) and dreamers (Anne in Anne of Green Gables), fighters (Pippi Longstocking in The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking) survivors (Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins), warriors (Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games), spoiled brats (Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden) and I dearly love them all. But none of them were gay. Not one. In fact, of all the  books I have read, I struggle to come up with a handful that feature gay protagonists, or even characters.

That was my first book, the one I wrote to prove that I could.

My second book came to me while I was visiting Palatine Hill in Rome. There was a placard about vestal virgins—priestesses chosen when they were young girls and forced to swear a 30-year oath of chastity. And I suddenly knew I would write a book about one of these priestesses, that she would fall in love, violate her oath, be publicly executed as a consequence, and then be reborn as an American teenager forced to confront her past (which is where the story truly starts). I didn’t choose the person she would fall in love with anymore than she did. Nesreen was part of the package that entered my head in the same flash of creative lightning that deposited Rhea and reincarnation and ancient Rome and virgin priestesses. Nesreen belonged to Rhea, and Rhea to Nesreen. Still, this was my second gay protagonist (out of two protagonists in total!), so obviously it was time to start questioning my sexuality.

I’m deeply protective of Rhea and Nesreen, in part, I think, because as I was writing Vestal, I realized that it is a story about love and that wasn’t what I originally intended. Initially, I meant it to be a story of revenge and redemption. Nesreen’s role was that of a requisite prop that would help move the plot along. But as I planned and outlined and wrote, I realized that love was the story’s greatest force—the one with the greatest capacity to change the characters, in some cases rather dramatically. And not just Rhea’s love for Nesreen, but Rhea’s love for her little sister Emeline. I am genuinely embarrassed to have written a love story. Certainly, that was never my intent. But this embarrassment has nothing whatsoever to do with my character’s sexuality.

Vestal technically isn’t even available yet. Its official release date is March 8, when both the digital and print versions of the book will be available on Amazon. I don’t expect that Vestal will raise the ire of the men’s rights movement or inspire legions of young girls to throw their fists into the air and fling off the mantle of oppression. But I would be thrilled for Rhea to be counted among the ranks of witty, courageous heroines with something to say. And if she happens to stand out a little bit more to young girls who have a harder time finding themselves in characters, well, that would be more than fine.

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Comments

  1. I am buying the HELL out of that. Also, what a gorgeous cover!

  2. Can’t wait. Love this post too.

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