There are other pieces that come before this. It begins on the Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott’s and Ian Mond’s long running podcast about books, where they discussed the representation of women in fiction, in part brought on by an article on Jezebel. Rjurik Davidson, the author of Unwrapped Sky, and critic and journalist, followed their discussion with an article, called the Unconscious Discrimination and a Regressive Culture. So naturally I called mine Part Three, because it is the third part of the conversation.
I don’t have a whole lot to say in response to Davidson. I agree with what he says, I agree with what was said in the podcast, and I will let my betters take that conversation forth.
But I did write the book that is discussed a little around this. Not a lot, mind you, but just a little (that said, the podcast does spent forty to fifty minutes discussing the Godless and you should check that out because it’s quite intelligent and funny). At any rate, one of the comments made about my book is that women are presented equally through the text, and that there is no rape in it, all of which is quite true. I won’t lie, either: it is something I set out purposefully to do. In part I did it because I have never agreed with the idea that fantasy is made, somehow, more realistic by its bad treatment of women. There’s a whole lot wrong with that as a statement, but more than anything, the idea that somehow the abuse of women makes something more realistic is just kind of fucked up. Whenever someones says that, you ought to stop, pause, and ponder the sheer fucked up nature of that. But mostly, I did it because it is my book, and I like to read books where there’s equality in it. That’s the world I live in. I think it’s the goal of society to strive towards that. I live it, so my book should live it, obviously.
Once you make that choice, however, the question remains: how do you ensure equality in your work?
I found that it was both an unconscious and conscious act. For example, I created Muriel Wagan, the ruler of Mireea, early on. Ayae, Bueralan, and her were perhaps the first three characters I made in the book. In those early days, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of fantasy novel I was writing, and my first incarnation of her was that she was originally the ruler of Mireea because her husband had returned, blind and mad, from war with Leera. It’s important to note that in the first days, her rule was in direct response to that act.
Then I made Zaifyr.
Zaifyr’s presence in the book required me to rethink Muriel Wagan. What I say isn’t much of a spoiler, but it is, so if you don’t want to spoil anything, but want to read the book… well, you left, right? Right. Anyhow, Zaifyr is one of the original men and women who were cursed with the gods’ divinity. He’s old, he’s done terrible things, he was one of the rulers of the Five Kingdoms, which ended about a thousand years before the book begins, and he is essentially a powerful figure. Like all powerful figures in literature, he needs a balance. In Mireea, he has two, Fo and Bau, who are like him in that they are inheritors of the gods’ power. However, once these three were established, Muriel Wagan’s power looked weak in comparison. You have to remember, much of what happens in the book happens in her city and, because of her initial story, her actions looked like she was guided by others around her, rather than her making her own choice.
From this short description, you can see the imbalance that begins to emerge, I am sure. My response was simple: redesign Muriel Wagan. Not hugely, but enough that she was empowered from the start, that her husband is second to her, and that she became a driving force of her own desire and need. She was given her own plot line, her own arc over the series, and her own conclusion. It sounds pretty simple, in part because it is. The myth of equality is that it’s somehow difficult, but like all writing, it’s pretty basic, and more a test of endurance than anything else. But, still, it isn’t enough to simply have one female character of agency to balance out three male characters of agency, and so others filtered in. Captain Meina of Steel was created. Reila, the healer, was as well. And, of course, Ayae got a lot more agency. She interacted with Zaifyr, Fo and Bau the most of all the characters, and it was important, as much for the equality of the book as for its readability, that she not be swamped by the personalities of all three.
The attention I paid didn’t end there, however. Plot and characters are one thing, but the structure of a book also has a demand to it. In the Godless, I have three main point of view characters: Ayae, Zaifyr, and Bueralan. It’s not a perfect balance – four would have been – but equality is not defined by gender parity alone, and each one of those three represent a different culture, and race. Still, to ensure that the balance of all three is kept, both Zaifyr and Bueralan are introduced through Ayae. I did it so that she would be the first of the characters to be cemented in the readers mind, before the two male characters came in. The book is very much an ensemble cast book and, depending on how that worked for you, it kept the tonal quality right, or didn’t, or wasn’t even something you noticed.
Which leads me to my last point: I don’t intend the equality of the book to be noticed. I don’t intend it to be a conversation that is had within the book. I am not, to be perfectly frank with you all, interested in that conversation right now. It’s an important conversation to have, and I have it outside the book, and in previous books, but it isn’t for this project. This book is all about gods, armies, sword fights, bars fights, big set pieces where cities get blown up, and whatever else you want to throw into it – but I have no interest in having a conversation about equality.
It’s simply there.
Notice it, don’t notice it, comment about it, don’t comment, it’s all the same to me. What moves and shakes the book is an entirely different set of conversations, and equality is not one of them. It’s just there. It just is.
In all writing, the author makes conscious decisions about what he and she wants to have in their book. From the colour of skin, to the clothes characters wear, to the things they do and the actions they take, this is all the authors work, and like an iceberg, you won’t notice the machinations for most of it if it is done right. That, however, does not mean that there aren’t thoughts there, that there aren’t intentions, and theories – and all of this is vitally important to any artist who is creating something.
You must be aware of what you create.
You must take ownership of it.
After all, your work, no matter its quality, no matter its place in terms of worth, is part of a social conversation we are all having. It has impact on your readers, and though at times that impact can be quite minuscule, it is still impact, and it does not happen alone. Your book is part of another book. Part of a movie. Part of a comic. Part of a song. It is part of society’s great weave. To say, for example, that rape makes something more realistic is awful not because of what it says about the fantasy genre, but because of what it says about you, and me, and us, as a culture and society. It is awful because of what it says to the next person to hear the words. Rape is realism in fantasy, someone says. Whiteness is how it was back then. The dragons all had wings like that. She couldn’t possibly have had a position of power. The black man would have be a slave. He had great dental hygiene and she didn’t piss in the street. You say that and you say it to your readers, to society, to the world. It is repeated, distorted, owned, rejected, and repeated, again.
The world is what we make it, I assure you.