Writing Queerly: Three Snapshots

As part of Uncanny Magazine’s Kickstarter campaign, I offered to blog about the subject of a contributor’s choice. D Franklin took me up on it and asked for an essay on the topic of “writing queerly.” In response, I’ve taken three snapshots of works that approach the idea of writing queerly in different ways. I hope each one can act as a prism, dispersing the flash of my camera bulb to illuminate multiple aspects of the relationship between queer writing and speculative fiction.

Snapshot 1: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
A man and a woman sit alone in a box at the theater. He is a professional swordsman, she a duchess. Five hundred curious spectators stare at them, wondering about this odd pair, but the man doesn’t care: he’s captivated by the duchess’s portable chocolate set, its blue flame, its silver whisk.

Neither character can tell what the other wants. “You might have brought your servant,” says the duchess. The swordsman smiles. “I don’t have one.” He knows she’s talking about his lover Alec. The duchess frowns, but only on the surface: “With her postures and careful expressions, she was like a series of china figurines displayed along a chronological shelf.”

The term “mannerpunk” arose in the wake of the trilogy that begins with Ellen Kushner’s 1987 novel Swordspoint. The fantasy of manners has since become a fairly robust subgenre, one that draws from the comedy of manners, Jane Austen, and Georgette Heyer. One that draws, to frame it a bit differently, from Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and Shakespeare. Not everything we call mannerpunk features queer characters, but it’s significant that Swordspoint brought the subgenre to life: Swordspoint with its romance between a swordsman and “his young gentleman,” its depiction of a society with room for all forms of desire, its enchantment with surfaces, with silver and china and lace, its wit, its wordplay, its theater. “Gender performativity” is almost too heavy a term here—it threatens to weigh things down—but surely it’s relevant. There’s a complete immersion in performance in Swordspoint, a delight in playing with materials, a kind of arch, nod–and–wink reply to Judith Butler. My copy of the novel is signed by the author: “Enjoy my bad boys!”

Snapshot 2: Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
“Two males, both of us human, were among the winged females and neuters that day. I guess people notice such things, but where do you learn it’s not necessary to comment on them?”

If gender and species don’t call for comment, what does? For Marq Dyeth, the narrator of Samuel R. Delany’s marvelously inventive 1984 novel, it’s hands. Marq loves hands (in humans) and claws (in evelmi, the scaly, six–legged creatures that share Marq’s world). The best hands, the most erotic for Marq, are large and male, with bitten nails.

How to talk about Marq Dyeth? For me to talk to you about Marq, it is necessary to comment on gender, because I have to call her “she.” Marq is male, but “woman” is the default term for “person” in her world; the pronoun “he” is reserved for the love–object of any given “she.”

If this dance of pronouns seems confusing, consider the purpose of science fiction: the genre of change, of expansion, of speculation. Blue fumes erupt in the swamps of Delany’s imagined planet, labyrinths float in the magma fields of Nok Hardrada, dragons whirl in the five directions (north, east, south, oest, west), and this rich world–building forms a kind of soil for the growth of new ways to think about relationships. “Two males,” records Marq, “were among the winged females and neuters”—and a key question in Stars in My Pocket is how to be among others. Humans who live in families with evelmi have learned to greet one another with their tongues, as their alien sisters do. Marq notices one woman who has had scales implanted in her back to be more like the evelmi. Such a gesture of love: to become like the other, to reach out with the whole body, not just hand or claw. In the grip of desire, Marq cuts her nails down to the quick and rubs them in the dirt. Without really knowing why, she is giving herself the hands of her own passion. “My universe,” she says, “is marked by the tips of claws and fingers at every point.”

Snapshot 3: “All That Touches the Air” by An Owomoyela
On Predonia, the humans keep the doors to their compound sealed. They share the planet with the Vosth, an alien species in the form of a silver fog that takes over anything exposed to the air. All that touches the air is ours, say the Vosth. They infiltrate exposed humans, turn their eyes blank and silver, make their bodies puppets for Vosth consciousness. Yet today a human figure stands outdoors. There’s a click as a protective helmet unseals. The helmet comes off, and the human breathes free.

“All That Touches the Air” is a story about adaptation and diplomacy: the unnamed narrator negotiates with Menley, a human body colonized by the Vosth, to arrive at a new way of sharing space. It’s also a story about sexual politics. In an interview in Lightspeed, where the story appeared in 2011, Owomoyela explains that the narrative grew out of a “politics of exposure”: the idea that women deserve to be harassed if their skin is showing, that “anything exposed to air belongs to anyone who can see it.” I didn’t notice the way gender is organized in “All That Touches the Air,” but my students did. They pointed out that Menley, the shambling zombie who speaks for the Vosth, is male, while the main actors in the human colony—the Prime Governor and an ambitious teenager looking to get into politics—are female. The human colony isn’t made up entirely of women, but it’s portrayed as a female space, while the outdoors belongs to Menley and the colonizing fog he represents. His name, of course, suggests both “men” and “manly”—he’s manly in the plural.

My students also noted that the narrator, who reaches an agreement with Menley that allows humans to walk outside without sacrificing their individuality to the Vosth, is never identified by gender.

“The first day,” says the narrator, “stepping out of my door, I felt lightbodied, lightheaded, not entirely there. I felt like I’d walked out of my shower without getting dressed. I had to force myself to go forward instead of back, back to grab my envirosuit, to make myself decent.”

To be “decent” is to be covered, to belong to the human colony. The only other choice is to surrender to the Vosth. But our narrator opens a third space between those two choices, and that space is huge and vibrant. “I took a breath. I tasted the outside world…”

In a sense, the narrator has created that world. It’s a new space, neither female colony nor land occupied by Men(ley). It’s both intoxicating and terrifying: “every moment was the sensory overload of air on my skin…everyone could see the expression on my face.” It’s what speculative fiction does. It’s writing queerly. It’s one of the possible worlds.

Many thanks to Ande Murphy and Soraya Zarook for permission to include their insights from our class discussion, and to Amal El–Mohtar and Keguro Macharia for their comments on the early drafts of this piece.

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Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories. Her work has received the John W. Campbell Award, the William L. Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award.

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