Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Kate Elliott! She is sharing her own experience with gender roles as a child and how it influenced her writing (which is fantastic, by the way!).
I discovered Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker books last year and am now a
big fan of them. Cold Fire ended up being not only one of my favorite books I read last year but also that special kind of book every reader loves to find – a new favorite book from any year. That was mostly because of the characters, the world, the dialogue, the sense of humor, and, well, I just loved EVERYTHING about this book. It’s one of those extremely rare books that captured my attention right from the beginning and kept me absorbed until the very end. I even gave it a rating of 10, which is not an occurrence that happens often at all! I can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy, and it has put Kate Elliott on my list of authors I simply must read more by.
You have a chance to win one of her books to read, too, since she has offered to give away two signed books today!
I grew up in rural Oregon. I was what they then called a tomboy, which meant I was a girl who liked to do things culturally associated with and approved for boys. For the purposes of this post I’m speaking of the western rural USA, as that was my experience. Even though I use a form of universal speech, it’s meant to reflect a limited “we” not an “the whole world and everybody we.”
Looking back now, I see that I was merely an active, outdoors-oriented child, but the cultural markers fell strongly upon our minds and bodies. To be an active, outdoors-oriented child is not to be boyish or girlish; it is not gendered. Our society gendered it.
There are a lot more complex ways to talk about gender today than there were then. At that time, as far as I knew, there was only the binary: boys and girls. There was a proper way to be a boy and to be a girl and an improper way to be a boy and to be a girl. I understood that as a child, even if I couldn’t have expressed it in those terms. You really didn’t want to be an improper boy or an improper girl, although the one advantage improper girls (as long as they weren’t being sexually improper, that is, wanting to have sexual autonomy and desire) had over improper boys is that it was at least understandable that improper girls might perceive boy things as superior because, of course, they were deemed so by society.
What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys.
When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old, my Language Arts teacher was a young woman of uncommon good sense who had empathy and compassion for her students. She was unlike any other female role model I had come into contact with up to that time. About halfway through the year, she gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives. My favorite food is . . . The best trip I ever took . . .
The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
These days, that sentence could be interpreted in many ways. It could have been then, too, of course, but the conversation about gender in rural Oregon was a far more limited one. What she thought I don’t know. But I do know she called me aside and asked me about it privately. What did it mean to me that I said that? she asked me with concern.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.
But beyond that, what it meant to me what that my authentic self, the place I knew was my most true inner self, wasn’t supposed to exist. I shouldn’t be the person I knew myself to be.
I believe she saw my words as an expression of pain. That it mattered to her that I was in pain made a huge impression on me.
More than that, it altered the trajectory of my life.
What she helped me understand was that I didn’t want to be a girl not because being a girl was bad at root, but because I felt stuck in the limited role allocated to girls.
She made it possible for me to realize that the problem wasn’t girlhood. The problem wasn’t that being a boy was actually better in an essentialist way, that males were genuinely superior to females, but that it was a cultural issue in which being a boy was defined as being better.
She made it possible for me to decide that it was okay to be a girl. That I could be proud of being a girl. That I could start to claim for myself some of that space that had for so long been reserved for boys. That I had a right to be there and go there, too, wherever there was.
Today, of course,we have more nuanced and complex ways of exploring statements about gender identity. I have no way of knowing how complex her question to me was meant, or what she was aware of and was listening for in my response. What mattered was that she approached my pain with compassion and without judgment.
If you’ve not grown up being told you shouldn’t be who you are, I’m not sure you can quite understand why world-building and writing epic fantasy is so attractive and in its way a form of chain-breaking. I started writing right around that time. My first serious “cycle” of stories, which I wrote in tandem with my best friend when we were 14, featured two male characters. It was very much in the style of everything I read, in which if there were female characters they were secondary and of only temporary interest to the story, while the lads got to have their rollicking adventures.
But in fact, that was the only story of that kind I ever wrote. After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories. Certainly it became progressively easier as more and more women moved into the science fiction and fantasy field as increasingly visible writers with stories that increasingly included and highlighted female characters and the world as experienced from the point of view of women.
Eventually, although this was harder, I was able to see that I had bought into the denigration of women’s lived experience. I had to climb out of that pit myself. Feminist historians have been excavating women’s lives for decades, bringing forgotten, invisible lives into the light of day. I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.
To this day, I feel a responsibility to my younger self, to write stories that don’t exclude her.
This sense of obligation to my younger self is why I try to write stories that include as wide and various a range of roles not just for female characters specifically but for people who have long been excluded in one way or another. I want my fiction to include the people who for so long have been ignored and made invisible by cultural narratives that claimed they did not and do not matter. I am so tired of exclusion.
Because you know what?
We don’t have to perpetuate exclusion. We’re bigger than that: We make up worlds.
About Kate Elliott:
Kate Elliott is the author of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs. She has also written the Crossroads Trilogy, which features giant eagles, ghosts, and the clash of cultures, the complete-in-seven-volumes Crown of Stars epic fantasy, and the science fiction Novels of the Jaran. She lives not in lurid adventure fiction but in paradisiacal Hawaii.
Kate Elliott has graciously offered to give away 2 SIGNED copies of her books – one to a US reader and one to a reader from anywhere outside the US. Each winner can choose one of the following books:
- Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
- Cold Fire (Spiritwalker #2)
- Spirit Gate (Crossroads #1)
- Shadow Gate (Crossroads #2)
- Traitors’ Gate (Crossroads #3)
You can read more about both of these series on the author’s website:
Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below. One entry per person. This giveaway is open internationally. One winner from the US and one from outside the US will be randomly selected. This giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Sunday, May 6. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).
Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winners. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.
Note: Now that the giveaway is closed, the contact form has been removed.