SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, it’s is our pleasure to host Yoon Ha Lee with a deeply personal essay on writing Ninefox Gambit and being trans.
When I set out to write Ninefox Gambit, I thought I was going to write something purely for fun, even though the setting was grimdark as all get-out: big space battles, nasty technomagical weapons, and a centuries-long plot against a horrible police state. Nothing personal, right? Just another larger-than-life military space opera. Certainly, I didn’t expect to write about anything that would leave me feeling personally exposed.
I didn’t reckon with my characters.
In Ninefox Gambit, Captain Kel Cheris (female) has to work with General Shuos Jedao (male) in order to retake a fortress captured by heretics. What complicates matters is that Jedao is (a) a four-hundred-year-old ghost with no body of his own, so (b) he is stuck directly inside Cheris’s head. Jedao is a genius tactician, but that’s not the part that’s difficult for Cheris. Rather, the complication is that Jedao is also a mass murderer, and she has to keep him from manipulating her or driving her insane while making use of his military advice.
What I had in mind when I set this up was a fun if high-body-count story involving a long game of cat-and-mouse between two very different personalities. I didn’t reckon on it turning autobiographical. I didn’t even realize that it had turned autobiographical until some time after one of the revised drafts. The mind is a funny thing.
To be clear, I am not and have never been a soldier. I’m not a ghost. And I’m not a mass murderer. I strongly disapprove of mass murder! (I hope that goes without saying, but you never know…)
I had decided for years that I hated writing trans characters and intended to do it as little as possible. And this wasn’t because I hated trans people. It was because I’m trans myself; I identify as male. Writing about being trans feels like I’m being asked to slit my wrists onto the page for the entertainment of complete strangers. It’s not fun. I’ve attempted suicide more than once (I also have bipolar disorder, because what is life without complications) and writing about suicide is easier than writing about being trans.
So I went into Ninefox Gambit determined not to write any trans people, because I thought, I do not have the energy to deal with this for a piece of entertainment fiction, and it spilled out onto the page anyway. There isn’t a single trans character, but Cheris (body) and Jedao (mind) ended up being a trans system, metaphorically anyway. Now, Cheris has a mind of her own and Jedao also used to have a body of his own, so the metaphor wasn’t exact. But if it had been more exact, I wouldn’t have been able to endure writing about it.
I was around twelve when I realized I was trans. It took me years to realize just how thoroughly screwed I was. I made the mistake of writing a fantasy story about a character who changed sex in a story in middle school–not for class, just something for myself. But my English teacher noticed me writing all the time and asked to see the story, and like an idiot, I showed it to her. This was in Texas in the early ’90s. My teacher called a conference with my mom. I remember asking my mom what the conference was about, and my mom said that my teacher liked my writing. I was too young to realize this was bullshit. I’ve been a teacher, and while there are exceptions, teachers are far more likely to call conferences with a parent or guardian when something’s gone wrong.
The something gone wrong was my deviance. And I’m pretty sure that was what they discussed because from then on, my mom suddenly became very interested in making me behave in proper feminine ways. I was told not to stomp around so much when I walked. To stop talking so loudly. I especially remember the day she sat me down with makeup and told me that I was going to learn how to apply makeup, and I just sat there in mute refusal. She couldn’t do anything further without my cooperation, so I won that round.
Years later I came out to some of my family and friends, and a while after that, eventually started submitting “about the author” bios with he/him pronouns. I actually didn’t want to be out to the sf/f community at large. I didn’t want to discuss my personal life. But my name kept turning up on lists that promoted female sf/f writers. I felt trapped–outing myself felt unsafe but not outing myself felt like perpetuating a lie. I eventually decided that I would have to live with the former.
Writing about Cheris and Jedao may in some sense have been a massive exercise in self-delusion, but it also came as a relief. I discovered that the topic of transness was not, in fact, too radioactive for me to touch. Part of writing Jedao was the experience of being trapped and having no way out–and yet, even though there’s no magic fairytale solution for me in real life, the experience was freeing as well. Jedao finds a way out, and he does it with his most dangerous weapon, words. That will have to be my way out too.
Yoon Ha Lee is a writer from Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has published over forty short stories, and his critically acclaimed collection Conservation of Shadows was released in 2013. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.