I'm honoured to host my friend Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the blog today to discuss her upcoming release, Winterglass! I'm definitely pre-ordering a copy, as it sounds absolutely amazing, as is everything I've read by Benjanun.
Without further ado, on to the post!
Content warning for discussion of anti-queer violence, concentration camps, anti-queer sexual violence, misogynistic slur, anti-lesbian slur.
Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard that in Chechnya, they’re rounding up gay people and putting them in concentration camps. Recently it came out that gay singer Zelimkhan Bakaev has, most likely, been tortured to death in such a camp.
This is the reality for queer people; this is happening in the real world. But in the popular imagination, of television shows and epic fantasy and science fiction, such an event is just another trope to tug at the heartstrings of and thrill the cisgender, heterosexual audience. It’s just another trope to make cisgender, heterosexual creators feel good and socially aware; it’s just another trope to make them feel radical, daring. It’s just another trope. Here’s a queer character, she lives under mortal terror of being rounded up, stuck in a concentration camp, or — as in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a scene aired to critical acclaim— watching her lover hanged and then being genitally mutilated. This, popular media wants to tell you, is what it means to be queer: constantly terrified, miserable, brutalized, sexually assaulted and then finally dead.
A cisgender heterosexual viewer or reader will feel emotional about it for five minutes. After the five minutes are up they’ll go on to think, not that they’ll say it aloud, how fortunate it is that they are not born queer. We are fodder for their emotional porn, fodder to reinforce their certainty that they’re the normal ones, fodder for them to feel better about themselves and that they belong in this world.
I could go on about the many, many pieces of media. I could describe the specific tropes and the specific occasions. How about an anime where a lesbian dies and then her wife hangs herself after trying unsuccessfully to overdose? How about that one grimdark fantasy book where a lesbian is blackmailed — with the gang-rape of her lover — into pretending to enjoy her own rape? There’s a lot, isn’t it, usually written by men but I’m sure we can think of a few written by cisgender heterosexual women. There is a deep, nasty hatred of lesbians in particular, and men who already enjoy writing reams of graphic rape will enjoy it double when that rape is of sapphic women. Because in their heads this teaches women a lesson for rejecting them: don’t like men, you little bitch? Well, this is what happens to dykes. I’m sure they will insist they’d never harbor such a heinous little thought, but I ran out of tolerance or consideration for good intention a very, very long time ago.
It’s exhausting to think about this, it’s more exhausting to talk about it. It’s exhausting to face the fact that these tropes will persist on and on, in shows given a budget in the hundred-millions. It’s exhausting to think that while the equivalent to this is decried when it comes to (presumed cishet) women, the relentless heaping of sexualized violence and tragedy on lesbians is often treated as necessary to make a point (about what?) or passes by unremarked upon, or worse it’s recommended as a must-read for its inclusiveness and its representation of queer women, just as with My Absolute Darling --
It also raises larger questions, as a man attempts to use a tale of graphic sexual violence — and the added taboo of incest — to jumpstart a career that likely would have been supercharged already thanks to his family connections and the fact that he’s a man. The notion that men like Tallent are doing women a favor by telling their stories for them ignores the fact that they usually tell these stories badly, and that their voices suck all the oxygen from the room, making it impossible for victims and survivors to be heard.
Using scenes of escalating brutality and grotesquerie may be a popular literary device, but it serves, in a warped and tormented way, to glorify this violence. Books like this become “must reads,” even for people who find them extremely traumatic, while the amazing women exploring themes of child sexual assault, molestation, incest, and sexual violence are pushed to the sidelines.
— s.e. smith, ‘MY ABSOLUTE MISOGYNY: MALE AUTHORS ARE STILL PROFITING FROM WOMEN’S PAIN’
It is tiring. It wears you down. And it never, ever stops.
My book Winterglass is a dystopia. It’s not a dystopia in the more conventional sense of 1984 and Brave New World, or The Hunger Games: the city-state Sirapirat, where Winterglass takes place, is a land under siege but the conditions of siege has become normalized. One of those conditions is that, in order for its people to survive the drastic change in climate — a perpetual winter — they must make use of heating and power fueled by ghosts sacrificed to the Winter Queen. In this way those dehumanized in a conquered territories (the marginalized, the politicized, the criminals) are gotten rid of, and the queen’s conquered subjects accept it as both convenient and necessary.
In many settings like this, and in dystopias in general, queer people are the author’s favorite targets for slaughter. Queerness is defined not as itself but by the brutality queer bodies suffer: the loss of lovers, the strain of keeping one’s gender or orientation a secret, the persistent threat of sexual violence, the suppression of self. This is the story that dominates the popular imagination — being marginalized means living in terror, and popular media teaches that not only do stories need conflict, but when conflict arises for marginalized characters that can only ever center around their identity. Women are raped; queer people are genitally mutilated or under threat of ‘corrective’ rape; people of color are enslaved and have their heritage stolen.
That isn’t a story I’m interested in telling. The world of Winterglass is a queer-normative one. It is brutally oppressive, as all imperialist invasive regimes are, but both Sirapirat’s native culture and the Winter Queen’s are not homophobic (one white gay man fled from ‘the Occident’ to live under the Winter Queen so he can marry his husband). In Sirapirat all genders are normalized, and the protagonists — both queer, one of them non-binary — may have many concerns, but being suppressed for their gender or romantic identity is not one of them. Why?
Because stories that trade on and exploit queer trauma are not simply reprehensible; they are lazy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked of the ‘danger of the single story’, and the endless mountains of queer tragedy are this, an embrace of and a perpetuation of it — the single story, predictable, the same every time: that queer people are born to be brutalized specifically because they are queer.
I am not your emotional fodder. I am not here to make you feel good about being heterosexual. I am not here to make you feel fortunate. I am not here for you.
I’m here to tell a different story.
Winterglass is a lesbian epic fantasy based on ‘The Snow Queen’, set in secondary-world Southeast Asia. Out December 2017, and available now for pre-order.
Kiran Oliver is a 31 year old writer and author residing in New Zealand with his wife and their cat, Ember.