Monday, June 24, 2013

Collaborators – Thinking About Gender

As the concept for Collaborators took shape, I realized that one of the key issues was power: power that comes from advanced technology, power that comes from military superiority, power that comes from idealism, power that comes from love, and power that comes from political advantage. But also and especially, power that relates to gender. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to address the issues of power without talking about gender.

People – that is, we Terran-humans -- often confuse gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Sex identification arises from biology, and most of us are either male or female genetically and phenotypically. That is, we possess either XX or XY chromosomes, and our genitals conform to the norm. These are not the only possibilities (you can have XXX or XXY, for example) and problems arise from the societal demand that every person fit into one or the other category. This has nothing to do with “masculine” and “feminine,” which are cultural interpretations, or with who a given individual is sexually attracted to. The binary division of male and female, while appropriate for many people, does not work for everyone.

Gender, on the other hand, has to do with how you experience yourself, a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person. Gender has been described as "who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with."

A few years ago, I attended a workshop at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center on "Gender, the Search for Self and the Search for Acceptance," facilitated by Chloe Schwenke, an ethicist who is herself a transgendered woman. Although much of the workshop centered on personal issues of gender and identity, it struck me that as a writer, I discover much depth and richness by asking the same questions.

In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer and queer-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to fracture sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.

To give you an idea what I'm talking about, here are some questions from the workshop. I've rephrased them to apply to characters, rather than personally.

  • How does your character know "what" that person is? What feelings, sensibilities, and other forms of awareness (other than simple body awareness) most make that person feel male, female, or somewhere in between?
  • Can you describe your character in non-gendered terms?
  • Does gender influence the spirituality of your character? How?
  • Has your character experienced a dissonance between what is expected and what was felt internally? How does the character deal with this tension? How does the character's sense of integrity and honesty affect the response?
  • How does this character (and the surrounding culture) consider the issues of equality and fairness between the masculine, feminine and androgynous?
  • How does the character's experience of gender affect the perception of the Divine, either within or outside the cultural norm?

In writing Collaborators, I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from differences in gender and gender expectations. It seemed to me that one of the most important things we notice about another human being is whether they are of “our” gender. What if the native race did not divide themselves into (primarily) two genders? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How would Terran-humans understand or misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover and life-mate? Not only that, but in a life-paired couple, each is equally likely to engender or gestate a child.

For the sake of linguistic simplicity, I adopted the convention of using the masculine pronoun as the generic universal for my alien race. Here’s the opening scene:

Hayke and his two children had carried blankets out to the hills beyond their farm near the Erlind border. They lay back, eating leftover potato rolls while the light faded from the sky. Early summer heat hung in the air, sweet with the smell of the ripening hay. The world softened into shadow, tone upon tone of layered gray except for the ghostly white of Hayke’s fur. Night-hoppers chittered. The grass rustled with the passage of a snake.
Torrey, the older child, had been out in the fields all day. Sun had bleached the downy fur on his face to platinum, probably his last season of that pure, shimmering color. He was growing fast. Little Felde played his pipe to any living thing that would sit still and listen.
Slowly the first pale stars emerged: the Archer, the Water-Dove, the Serpent, which Wayfolk called the Grommet. Felde loved hearing the story of the little grommet who sang such wonderful music to the stars that when he died, they could not bear to lose him. Torrey insisted he was too old for such tales. Tonight he was hunting other quarry in the skies.
Hayke, lying back on the blanket and gazing up at the stars, felt an absurd sense of tenderness. He loved both his children, but Felde, the one he had not carried...Felde was special. Perhaps because Felde was the last child he and Rosen would ever have, perhaps because it was Rosen who had borne him... Loss, still poignant after five years, pulsed through Hayke.
“There it is!” Torrey pointed to the northeast at the unwinking mote of light.
“Sharp eyes,” Hayke said.
Felde snuggled close, curling his arms around Hayke’s chest. “Are they really people from another star?”
“That’s what they say, little one.”
“Adso says it’s all an Erlind plot,” Torrey said. Adso was fourteen and Torrey’s closest friend.
“I’m not saying Adso’s wrong-minded,” said Hayke, “but imagine if you’d never set foot off this farm, never seen anything but hens and woolies, and then one day someone told you about the great capital city of Miraz. Thousands of people, all eight clans living together in one place. Towers and bridges and museums. Trams and temples. You’d think he was making it up—”
“I’d think his brains were corked!”
“But he’d be telling the truth, wouldn’t he?” said Hayke.
“Dim-Dim, what’s corked?” Felde piped up.
Torrey choked on his own laughter. Hayke hushed him.
Felde lifted his head. “I’d like to meet the star people.”
“You, grub?” Torrey said. “What would you do if you did meet one? Run away howling?”
After a moment, when the night had fallen quiet again and the stars seemed even closer, Felde said in his child’s voice, “Do you know what I’d do if I met the star people, Dimmie?”
“No, little one. What would you do?”
“I’d play my music for them.”
Hayke tightened his arms around Felde, felt the child’s bones like a delicate sculpture, the heartbeat soft and light against his own. His crest fluttered. He had no words for how very precious this child was to him. Rosen...Rosen would have loved him very much.
He wished with all his heart that Rosen had lived to see this night, this unwavering star of hope.

Oh, and should this pique your interest, you can find the book at Amazon and Goodreads and in trade paperback at other online booksellers. 

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