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Today’s guest is Sam Hawke—whose recent debut novel, City of Lies, was one of my favorite books of 2018! This wonderful epic fantasy follows two siblings as they work to unravel mysteries surrounding their Chancellor’s murder and their city suddenly being under siege. Though it features poisonings, war, and betrayal, it is ultimately an optimistic book with main characters seeking to do the best they can in the face of difficult circumstances—and they and their stories are excellent!

City of Lies by Sam Hawke Cover Image

The Sewing Test

There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love to fight. I had no particular talent at any other sport, but fighting? That I was good at. Small and quick and tough, I sparred and wrestled with my older brother all throughout my childhood, and watched Jackie Chan movies and Royce Gracie dominating the original UFCs. I married my jujitsu training partner (our most beloved wedding photo is me accidentally ogoshi-ing him on the beach) and we teach a club together. My six year old did an escape from half guard last night at training that almost made us weep with pride. I bloody love fighting, is what I’m telling you. It seems a natural fit, when I went to write a big fat fantasy novel, to write my lead in that mould.

Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.

Let me explain.

The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them.

Listen, I was as much of a tomboy as anyone. I was a small, skinny, flat-chested teen with short hair I wouldn’t brush and bruises all up and down my shins and forearms from sparring. All of my close friends were boys. I liked martial arts, rock-climbing, SFF books, rock music. I wasn’t pretty, I didn’t own any makeup or heels, I was scrappy and smart-mouthed, and scornful of shopping and shoes. I was one of the top maths and science students in my school and I had no fucks to give for people who thought I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a girl. So stories of girls rejecting arranged marriages, seizing power, joining the army, outdoing their brothers and their fathers and the men who underestimated them, fighting, winning? These were my jam, they were made for me, they were my very lifeblood.

By their very nature these are often intended to be stories of rebellion and fortitude, stories about escaping the box that society has crammed you in. And there’s nothing wrong with that—don’t we all dream of escape, sometimes? Nor is there anything wrong with any of the traits that we see in these characters. It’s fine to be tough and smart mouthed, to be sexually aggressive, to be physical, to desire travel and adventure. It’s fine to be brash and practical and to bravely fight for what you believe in. Undoubtedly our cultural enjoyment of the tough tomboy who breaks free of her societal constraints has played its part in the positive change in the genre over time—why, it’s entirely possible now to fill your reading calendar exclusively with novels that do not solely centre men, in which women matter, without trying too hard—and I applaud her for that.

The danger, though, is a trend toward attaching our respect and enjoyment solely to those types of characters at the expense of other kinds of power and strength and importance.

Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them. Applaud Arya Stark as she gets her bloody revenge, and make sure Sansa is dragged through the mud for her foolish hopes and desires and ambitions. Write a book that seems to be full of strong amazing women—but do it in a way that’s actually deeply contemptuous of them.

(It’s more than that, of course. It’s also a product of our cultural fascination with violence as a solution—our love affair with creative ways of inflicting harm on each other has led us, I think, to prioritise physical conflicts and solutions, and in so doing we lose precious opportunities to tell different kinds of stories and come up with creative methods of resolving those conflicts. But that’s another article.)

There are all kinds of strength. There’s valour in staying home and keeping it functioning while others are away at war. There’s strength in raising children, in caring for our elders. There’s as much grit in persevering through domestic hardships as in the trenches, as much intellect in managing emotional needs as broad scale strategic ones, and mastery with a sword is no more inherently impressive than mastery with a needle (again, this is another article, but historically sewing is one of the most important skills in a society). If you show me in your story that you don’t understand that… well, no hard feelings, but I’m moving on.

So, I wrote Kalina. She is kind, emotionally intuitive, clever, and psychologically if not physically resilient. She can’t run, she can’t fight, she needs a lot of rest. And I hope that readers will appreciate her strength and her skills as no less valuable than a warrior’s or an assassin’s or a Queen’s. I also hope that people—especially women—will see themselves in her in the way that I saw myself in the scrappy little Aryas of SFF.

She is fucking great at sewing.

Sam Hawke Photo
Photo Credit: Kris Arnold Photography
A black belt in jujitsu, Sam Hawke lives with her husband and children in Australia. CITY OF LIES is her first novel.