Out of the Subtext: C. S. Pacat on Why Diversity Matters in SF/F

captiveGrowing out of Tolkien, medieval fantasy is often a fantasy of nostalgia, in which the reader is invited to escape into an exciting or reassuring past. But nostalgia itself can be exclusionary, as those from minorities for whom life in the past would have allowed fewer rights cannot imagine existence there without constraints. Thus, the reader may travel backwards in time—but only if they take on an imaginative self that conforms to certain conditions, which may include race, sexuality, or gender expression.

A queer kid, I grew up reading fantasy novels in which there were few queer characters. Of those who did exist, many were either hidden—coded, subtextual Dumbledores—or they were explicit, but struggled with issues of persecution and oppression as writers created fantasy worlds that reproduced real-world prejudices. In the ’90s in particular, queer fantasy characters endured traumatic coming outs, or lived life on the wan fringes of social acceptability. We were George R. R. Martin’s Loras Tyrells, either barely textual (as in the novels), or persecuted for our sexual preferences (as in the TV series). It was as though queerness could not be imagined without simultaneous oppression, as though discrimination was a fact of queerness that could not be separated from it—transhistoric, transcultural, even across fantasy worlds.

Yet I yearned for a heroic self. I gravitated to those authors who wrote queerness as free, unabashed, unrestrained, like the charismatic bisexuality of Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. At the same time, I was encountering the world of online fiction, which seemed to be in a constant agony-ecstasy grapple with the fantasy and science fiction genres, as fanfiction authors wrote and rewrote source material, queering texts and telling untold stories, a vast engine of thousands of unpaid writers attempting in their own way to diversify a narrative monoculture.

When I started to write Captive Prince, I wanted to challenge the assumption that, “that’s just the way it was.” Captive Prince is a medieval fantasy, but at its heart, it is a love story between two enemy princes from rival nations. I love high-octane escapism, adventure, swordfights, chases, escapes, true love, intrigue, high stakes—but I also love homoerotica, themes of sex, power and sexuality. I wanted to include all of those things, and to create a homonormative fantasy world, with freer forms of sexual expression.

The wider debate over diversity and representation in genre is happening in part because we have understood that genre is important. It’s the place where we create our heroes and villains, and celebrate our most aspirational selves. And when we write genre, we are engaged in a form of cultural production: we are creating the myths of our time. It might seem facile to say that we’ve exchanged Hercules for Harry Potter but genre fiction is where much of our modern myth-making happens.

It is the seeming universality of epic storytelling that is often why we seek it out. Yet in an era when, as they say, more white men have played a Marvel superhero than women or people of color—instead of true universality—we still often encounter culturally limited genre stories that are essentialised as universal. This is in fact a form of cultural exclusion that erases whole groups from our shared imaginative landscape, denying those same groups access to any kind of heroic lineage—even an imagined one.

Whenever I think of this exclusion, I am reminded of the words of the author Junot Diaz, who said (and I am paraphrasing), we have this idea that vampires or monsters have no reflections in a mirror—but perhaps it’s not that monsters don’t have reflections. Rather, if you want to make a human being into a monster, simply deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.

Realist fiction plays an important role in mirroring, because of course we want to see reflections of our actual selves. But we also want to see our heroic selves, which is the province of genre.

I am excited to be writing at a time when the discussion about diversity in genre is at the forefront, and a new heroic pantheon is beginning to emerge, peopled by different and exhilarating characters. I look forward to the ways in which this genre is going to evolve over the next few years, and the kinds of stories that we are going to write.

The final book in the Captive Prince trilogy, Kings Rising, was released on Tuesday.

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