Changeable Skins, Consummate Catchphrases

I usually find outrage columns super easy to write, and as an older woman who didn’t start writing in speculative fiction until 50, I have a deep well of indignities to draw upon. Did I recently read a review that “unrecommended” a book because the older characters in it dared *shudder* to have sex? Check.

Have I read multiple spec fic pieces that describe older women’s bodies with a contempt bordering on pathology? Check.

Did I overhear a convo between literary agents which focused on how the age of the writer is a significant consideration in representation and that, for older women, it is also tied to how much younger they can be made to look for their back-cover author photo? Check.

Have I read 140-character manifestos that assert that the spec fic world would be freed of nearly every societal ill if older writers would just hurry up and die already? Check.

Did I once see a comment on a blog post (decrying spec fic writers behaving badly) that consisted entirely of listing the miscreants’ dates of birth and ages? Check. 

Each time I run across one of these little irritants it sets me back on my heels a bit. And when that happens these days, I turn to the video game Overwatch for comfort. Actually, I turn to one specific playable hero in the game: Ana.

She is Egyptian, the mother of another playable hero (32-year-old Fareeha, or Pharah), is both a sniper and a healer, and has an interesting backstory for a video game character in a first-person-shooter game (read or watch her backstory). But that’s not why I play her (or, as is more often the case, why I cajole my daughter to play her while I watch). 

I play her because she is 60 years old. I play her because I can, in any given game, choose to wear the skin of who she was when she was young, or who she was when her hair started going salt-and-pepper, or who she is now that she’s got a full head of gloriously white hair. There is a deep truth hidden in this surface change for the older woman. All our selves—often significantly different from one decade to the next—are at our disposal when we age. If they look quick and at the right moment, the young can recognize when we change our skins. When we hear a song we have to dance to. When we rally on the street or protest on the page. When we fight for our daughters (and sisters and mothers). When we remember our losses, and know that we’ve survived them. An agent should be so lucky to have this richness of skins on display for that back cover photo.

When Ana shows up (“spawns”) in the game, her catchphrase is a mantra for the aging: “Never stop fighting for what you believe in.” Stranded preposition notwithstanding, the phrase is an elegant acknowledgement that many of us have been engaged in the struggle for justice and reconciliation for a very long time. That utopia younger people think will be ushered in when us older folks finally die off? Well, we’ve been fighting for it too. While there isn’t anything novel about younger generations positioning themselves as the heart of a movement for change, I do believe the complete erasure of elders from those same movements is new.

I was recently reading a piece about AIDS Survivor Syndrome that bluntly states that the older QUILTBAG community is “demonized” by the younger community. My (older) gay friends may choose different words (“ignored” and “resented”) to describe the generational divide, but they too point to the fact that the activism of people like Marsha Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, or Ada Bello is viewed as artifact instead of part of a continuum. As a young writer in my twenties (albeit not of spec fic), I thought older generations of writers—Grace Paley, Audre Lorde, Ana María Rodas, Ariel Dorfman, Václav Havel among many others—were integral to the engaged fiction I wrote and sought to write. Sure, I acknowledged them trailblazers, but they were still toiling on the trail. It would have been inimical to wish them a speedy death to hasten the utopia simply because I was newer to the fight for human rights.

The other voice lines Ana has in Overwatch reflect what we want to believe as we enter into what in Spanish is called la tercera edad (our third age)—“Speed isn’t everything,” “Experience always wins in the end,” and “I haven’t lost my touch.” They also reflect the promises we make to those who come after us (“You’re going to be okay”) and our pride in what they accomplish (“That’s my daughter”).

There are also a whole lot of bossy, arrogant, and demanding voice lines Ana utters during the game. These, too, ring true to the skin I wear these days: I am tempted to say “It’s just a scratch, you’ll be fine,” every time I’m with a younger person who is scandalized by conflict or surprised by disagreement. I may not say “This is just like old times” when I’m dancing with abandon amid a bunch of younger people at a con, but I’m certainly thinking it. And, yeah, I own the catchphrase, “You disappoint me, I expected more of you” too—the entire listing of indignities at the beginning of this essay is exactly that.

If I haven’t lost you already, one more observation about Ana and Overwatch. Each of the playable heroes is given an “ultimate”—a powerful weapon or ability that they can use while gaming. Many of these are individual in the sense that they make the hero who is “ulting” more lethal or harder to stop, and some of them collectivize the power. Ana’s ultimate (nano-boost) is one of the latter. “Get in there,” she yells at her teammates as soon as you unleash her ultimate. And with it, everyone’s power is amplified. 

And really, isn’t that what many older women writers in the genre are doing? Amplifying the representation and the power resident in our genre when they write their Ana-style badasses, grandmothers with attitude, and women of a certain age who know how to mix resistance with business? Chicana writer Gina Ruiz has, in one of her Cholos and Aliens stories, a pair of older women who ingeniously hide the ray-guns needed for the resistance in a cart from which they sell their street tamales. And, of course, nobody would ever suspect them of being gunrunners. In Barbara Krasnoff’s “Red Dybbuk,” a politically radical grandmother possesses her activist granddaughter, much to the consternation of her seemingly normative daughter. Nisi Shawl’s Rianne, in the short story “Pataki,” is a diviner and protector of the vulnerable, with a complicated past and intriguing future; and Teresa Frohock’s 40-plus-year-old characters Rachael and Catarina are, as the author herself describes them, chrome-ass bitches. (Also check out the works of Andrea HairstonLouise ErdrichLarissa LaiAthena AndreadisKathleen Alcalá, and Ana Castillo.)

As I write this, many people on a fellow spec fic writer’s timeline are commenting about a lawsuit brought against the Iowa Writers Workshop by an older (male) writer. Regardless of the merit (or lack thereof) of the work of the writer who is bringing suit, a number of us have focused on the stats released by the renowned workshop, which show that zero writers over 51 have been accepted into the program from 2013 to 2017. There are a lot of ways to parse that information, and many people have made valid points about the much lower number of 51-plus applicants in the overall pool of applicants. But the fact remains: if that zero-acceptance-rate were in any way noteworthy or of concern, the organization would have tried to address it years before the suit was filed. Like those literary agents discussing why they won’t sign older women writers, the Iowa Workshop seems to be saying that the ROI on older writers just isn’t attractive enough.

If Ana and Overwatch have taught me anything, it is that age-averse literary agents and youth-favoring organizations are seriously underestimating not only the capabilities of older writers, but the appeal of older characters—even to much younger audiences. I derive a lot of hope for the popularity older women characters in our genre from Ana’s success as a character. Sure, she’s not the most popular hero, and almost every player cheat sheet out there says she’s one of the harder characters to play (boy, howdy), but looking at the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, I see that she is included in 1,989 of the pieces there. That’s not bad given that Tracer—a 26-year-old QUILTBAG character that is, without question, one of the most popular heroes of the game—is only included in 3,198. (The site has more than 16,500 Overwatch fan fics altogether, but there are 25 distinct hero characters who contribute to that total.)

This past week I was having coffee with one of the editors of Philadelphia’s largest newspapers. Since I arrived at the coffee shop a half-hour early, I decided to work on a novella I’m writing, but my laptop was only at a 25 percent charge so I had to find a table close to an outlet. Alarmed when I didn’t see any, I asked one of the people working the coffee bar. As most of the accessible outlets required crawling beneath a bench to plug-in, he (early or mid-twenties, pierced, long hair, fingernails painted two different colors) kindly offered to do so for me. When I gratefully handed him the business end of the charger, he glanced at my laptop. “Cool sticker,” he said.

Now, as it happens, my laptop is covered in a lot of colorful stickers, and people often comment on them to me—but in plural, not singular. “Which one?” I asked.

He pointed at my Ana sticker.

“Are you an Overwatch player?” I asked. When he nodded, I added, “Ana is my favorite character, she’s tough to play well, but is a lot of fun.”

“You play Overwatch?!” There was delight battling incredulity all over his face while he said it. We then had a 10 minute conversation about our “mains” (his is Junkrat) and the new hero that has just been introduced—before he actually ducked down to plug my laptop in.

When he reemerged from under the bench, I thought about this essay, with its delight in the symbolism of changeable skins and catchphrases that only a veteran of decades of fighting for what she believes could actually love. “You do know that Ana is 60 years old, right?” I asked my co-Overwatcher as he stood back up.

“Sure,” he said. “One of the things I like best about the game is that it wants to be inclusive.”

¡Zaz!—as my mother would say any time an observation was right on the mark.

Inclusion isn’t a zero sum game. The creators of Overwatch know it. My young co-Overwatcher at the coffee shop knows it. I know it. Now, if only I could get Ana’s nano-boost ultimate going, spec fic would know it too.

Sabrina Vourvoulias

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict, and of the Latinx experience in the United States. It was named to Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012.

Her short stories have appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, and in a number of anthologies, including [email protected] Rising (Wings Press; Goodwin, ed.); The Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (Fox and Older, eds.).

She is freelance bilingual journalist and editor; her pieces have appeared at Philly.com, Philadelphia MagazineCity and State Pennsylvania, NBC Philadelphia, Telemundo 62, and The Guardian US, among others. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.

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