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Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments and response to this first week of guest posts. I’m especially grateful to the writers for sharing such powerful, personal, and important stories. My plan is to take a week off, then come back with the next round of posts, just to break things up a little.

S. L. Huang addresses a common problem of representation: the idea that straying from the mainstream by more than one axis is too much, too implausible…especially for a protagonist. You can’t be too “different,” because you’ll knock readers out of the story.

Thank you, S. L. Huang, for dismantling that argument so well.


I’m a tangled intersection of underrepresented (female, nonwhite, queer, among others). Even before I had the vocabulary to express it, even before I had the self-awareness to acknowledge it, I remember always looking for people “like me” in media.

That’s not too surprising, is it?

It’s that same twinge of relating one feels when, say, seeing a nerd character who gets to be awesome in a story. I was always looking for those. But I also related to people who matched my identity in other ways—women, Asians, children of immigrants, people who struggled with their own inherited culture. And the older I got, and the more I gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy, the more it happened that the characters I related most to were always the side characters. The support. The ones who never got enough time for their own stories … or whose stories flat-out weren’t told.

I used to think this was just a product of my own preferences being off-beat. But over time I began to realize that the more dimensions of my identity a character matched, the further she was relegated from being a main character. From being important, a hero who would take the helm and drive the story into its own world’s legend.

It started to feel wrong, a piece of reality that kept wobbling like a busted chair leg.

#

I sometimes call intersectionality “the problem of Star Trek captains.” We’ve had five series-leading captains: Kirk (white, male, American), Picard (white, male, European), Sisko (black, male, American), Janeway (white, female, American), and Archer (white, male, American). Not a single one differs in more than a single category from white, male, American.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with a captain who was female, half-human-Chinese-from-China, and half-Trill. And I wondered, as my teenaged self, why a series about a globalized Earth—one known for challenging barriers, no less—hadn’t had a similar one. The question made me itch under my skin in a way I couldn’t articulate at the time.

#

“Nobody is a sidekick in their own life,” the saying goes, and growing up I’d never felt like one. In high school, I was bright, precocious, super excited about learning absolutely anything, and excessively opinionated. I never doubted I deserved a seat at the table.

Until I grew up. Gradually, the juxtaposition of my accomplishments with my intersectionality have begun giving me frissons of unreality, as if I’m a monkey playing the piano. I imagine I’m in a book or a movie seeing the moment my character is established: The only girl in the math seminar … who is also nonwhite and queer and will save the world!  The woman who outshoots all the men … who is also the Asian-American daughter of an immigrant and will be our Chosen Protagonist!  And I’m jolted out of the scene, the bulwark of traditional culture whispering “unrealistic” in my ear.

And I’m not the only one who’s been the girl in the math seminar, or the woman who can outshoot all the men. Not even close. My best mathematician friend is a woman who’s smarter than I am, and the last time I taught shooting the most advanced marksman was a markswoman who’d moved to the U.S. from Japan. There are lots of us, and we all kick more than enough ass to lead our own stories. The lack of fictional counterparts in SFFdom … it’s frustrating, and it sometimes makes me feel desperately lonely.

And angry.

And lonely.

Over and over, I’m constantly reminded that the mere fact of my existence is too brash and unusual and radical to be believable as a hero. In SFF worlds, where it seems every lead character is Extraordinary and Chosen and Destined … simply being born on more than one real-life minority axis is a bridge too far.

#

“I’ll be your ethnic sidekick,” I said to my white friend, when she and I were planning to put together a webseries. I said it with a laugh and an eyeroll, in the way one does when one wants to mock something but is still too hesitant to challenge it. Serious-not-serious, funny-not-funny.

“Nah, nobody’s a sidekick,” my friend said. “We’re both too awesome.”

I will always love her for that.

#

Zero Sum GameWhen I started the brainstorming process for what would eventually become my debut novel, I initially assumed I’d write my mathematically-superpowered lead character as a man. Probably a white man. Because … well, because. Something-something-mumble-blah about me being a nonwhite woman, and if I wrote my first lead as a nonwhite woman, no matter how different she was from me, wouldn’t that feel too contrived?

Because people from more than one underrepresented demographic are contrived.

Choosing to make my protagonist not only a woman, but a woman of color, felt … daring. Dangerous. Like people would find fault in her just for that. Not for any failures in writing or character, but for daring to exist, as a nonwhite woman leading her own story.

For existing.

I’m sitting here reading the history of my own thoughts and starting to cry. Because how many times have I looked at the television, or books, or movies, and wanted to scream, “I exist!”

I am the protagonist in my own life, in my own story. I am not anybody’s sidekick.

Neither are my characters. Neither are they.

I have now, thankfully, gotten over the knee-jerk reaction that every axis I assign to a character off the straight white able-bodied American male (etc) is somehow an additional layer of disbelief I’m asking my audience to suspend. That I must justify these choices. If I ever feel that urge, I remind myself I am a perfectly realistic person, someone whose birth needed no special reason.

And I do not need anyone’s permission to be a hero.

So I’m going to continue writing my main characters as nonwhite and female and queer and disabled and nonbinary and non-neurotypical and non-Western as I want, and cross these demographics with each other as much as I want, and make my characters drive their own stories just as much as I drive mine. Because we exist.

We exist.


SL “Lisa” Huang uses her MIT degree to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. Her short stories have sold to The Book Smugglers and Strange Horizons. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords, and online she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter.

SL Huang

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
dancinghorse
Feb. 28th, 2015 06:17 pm (UTC)
Wow. Really well put. Will share.

Have you read Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17? Because if not, it might interest you.

I read it as a teen and it was massively eye-opening for this (disabled) (overintellectual) small-town white girl from a white-white-white state. It did things no one else in the genre I loved to read did, and it did them through an Asian woman protagonist who could out-shoot and out-star-navigate all the men.

In 1966. Written of course by a black writer. Which I didn't know. I just knew the book was ZOMG ZOMG.
slhuang
Feb. 28th, 2015 09:15 pm (UTC)
Wow, I haven't read it, but now it's on my TBR for sure! Thank you so much for the rec!
dancinghorse
Feb. 28th, 2015 09:21 pm (UTC)
Oh man. That book is burned into my brain. She rules with her voice. She sings vicious thugs into submission. It's space opera that goes places space opera hadn't even gone before--and Star Trek wouldn't air for another year after it was published.

Rydra Wong. In the late Sixties when I read it, I had never seen a protagonist like that. She made me see a future that wasn't all white, all male, all straight.
witchwestphalia
Feb. 28th, 2015 09:42 pm (UTC)
This. I'm a cis white female and I'd love love love to read more stories where the protagonist is different from me!
lietya
Mar. 1st, 2015 12:09 am (UTC)
This is beautiful. (And I'm checking out her novel as I write.)

One thing that resonated me from a diversity panel was one author pointing out that publishers tend to treat more than one axis of divergence as *additive* in terms of the market - you will now need readers who are X, Y, AND Z before they're willing to buy this book as representative, and that means an ever-shrinking target demographic - when the reality is that it's more that now you've expanded the pool of possibly represented readers to those who are X, Y, OR Z. On top of that, as this essay incisively points out, the ones who are all three... will cry with joy at seeing themselves in print and buy 2 copies. I know I have.
northernwalker
Mar. 2nd, 2015 05:18 am (UTC)
That's a really good point- the more of us who have something to identify with, the better sales will end up being.
zelda888
Mar. 1st, 2015 05:29 am (UTC)
"Not a single one differs in more than a single category from white, male, American."

I am white, and one of the "duh" moments in my own education came from the movie "Rising Sun," in which Tia Carrere plays a woman of mixed African (via America) and Japanese ancestry. And I thought, well, that's... unusual. (By which I meant exotic.) And then it hit me-- the rest of the world does not need white people's permission before they interact with each other. Well, HELLO. I am not the central effing hub through which everyone must go. This has been useful in limiting the amount of stupid I unleash on the world.

"And I do not need anyone’s permission to be a hero."

This makes me want to stand up and cheer. Go you!
Sylvia Mcivers
Mar. 1st, 2015 07:32 pm (UTC)
Huh.
I looked for zero sum game & came up with nofiction, a star-trek novel, and others. Not the one i'm looking for!
jimhines
Mar. 1st, 2015 07:37 pm (UTC)
Try here.
kendokamel
Mar. 2nd, 2015 02:44 pm (UTC)
Wonderfully put!
Ted Cross
Mar. 6th, 2015 08:50 am (UTC)
I didn't set out to make the characters in my debut sci-fi unusual in any way.They just grew in my mind as I devised the plot. There are three main characters in The Immortality Game. The primary one is a female Russian who has no interest in becoming a heroine but doesn't really get a choice. The second is an overweight Mexican-American. The third is an elderly Russian scientist. I'm writing another sci-fi novel now in which there are no males at all in the solar system, and the main characters are Chinese and Indian.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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