Tag Archives: gender

Writing RAVENFALL: Gender, pronouns, and creating the character of Ava

Those of you who have read Crowflight will have met Ava, the Raven who saves Turn from starvation and an infected wound after she’s exiled into the Shadowlands. In Ravenfall, Turn’s relationship with Ava deepens, and the two of them take a journey that forces them to depend on each other in entirely new ways. By the end of the book, they’re closer than ever, and in Rookwar I’m happy to report that Ava is taking center stage in ways they haven’t before, mostly by virtue of their own demands to be allowed to do so.

Ava is an interesting character, at least to me. They’re strange, and for a while they were entirely mysterious to me. When I wrote Crowflight I knew I needed a character to act as Turn’s guide to the Ravens as a people and a culture; Line and Orbit had taught me that as Adam came to understand the Bideshi with the help of Kae and Lochlan. When you’re introducing both the protagonist and the reader to a new world within the world of the story, such a guide-character is not necessary but often very helpful.

So at first that was what Ava was there to do. But as Turn learned about them, I learned about them too. Or rather, I learned what I didn’t know about them, and how much of what I did know was somewhat contradictory.

I have no idea how old Ava is. They haven’t told me, so they haven’t told Turn, either. Ava is definitely older than Turn, and may in fact be quite a lot older, though I don’t think Ava is elderly. They aren’t elderly in any physically recognizable way; they’re slender to the point of serious thinness, but they’re extremely strong. Their face is essentially ageless, unlined but not at all young. They’re wise, but they tend to keep out of the way of any political or social power – perhaps because of that wisdom. They’re familiar with Raven blood magic, but don’t specialize in it particularly. They’re a skilled warrior, but prefer not to fight at all, and what role they’ve played in past conflicts is unclear. They’re devoted to the service of the goddess Atropos, but not especially devout or mystical, at least not any more than any other Raven.

They’re also devoted to Turn, but their other intense relationships – if any – remain a mystery. I know almost nothing about their parentage, their personal history, or their motivations before Turn came along.

Which isn’t to say I don’t know anything about their actual character. Slowly, as they’ve revealed their personality to Turn, they’ve revealed themselves to me. Ava is quiet, practical, but capable of intense emotion and possessed of deep convictions. They tend to be naturally skeptical, and to depend on little without evidence. From what I’ve observed of the way I write them, they’ve always been something of an outsider within the already-outsider Ravens, preferring to keep to the margins and make their own decisions independently of the group. Turn met Ava when Ava was camped some distance from the rest of their group; my sense is that Ava often did that before meeting Turn, retiring to the wilderness away from the primary encampment to engage in solitary meditation.

But on Turn’s arrival, Ava gained a kind of anchor. Ava was drawn to her instantly and provided Turn with not only a guide but also a companion at a time when Turn badly needed one. I think Ava was ready for one as well, after so much time spent alone. Now Ava serves as Turn’s companion and friend, as well as advisor of a kind. Turn is still quite young, barely out of her teens, and she needs one.

And then there’s the issue of gender. As soon as Ava made themselves known, my general sense was that they were a woman, but that quickly changed, and I realized that it made a lot of sense to write Ava as genderqueer/non-binary, which I’d been wanting to do with a character for a while. There is no place for non-binary people in Crow culture, but there is among the Ravens, who are both more and less bound by traditions (sharp-eyed readers may pick up some similarities between them and the Bideshi, some of which were consciously inserted and some of which were not). That means there’s a bit of a learning curve for Turn, and for a time she thinks of Ava using binary pronouns, which Ava allows.

But I knew pretty early on that I wanted to eventually go with the singular they, and I wanted to Turn to end up there as well. Some of it that was personal – I prefer that pronoun for myself, and it irritates me how much resistance there is to it, as well as to other non-binary pronouns – but some of it was also that I just wanted to see what would happen to the way I wrote if I abandoned binary writing with a character.

And interestingly enough, what happened was that Ava finally felt able to start asserting themselves not only as a secondary character but as a co-protagonist, which they pretty much are at this point. The simple adoption of a different kind of pronoun made a character come alive for me in a way they hadn’t before. The moment in Crowflight where Turn stops thinking of Ava as she and starts thinking of them as they was a major turning point for me as the author. From then on, writing Ava felt different.

Incidentally, she is simply what Ava offers as a pronoun for Turn to use, not one at which Turn arrives herself. Ava’s reasons for doing that are unclear to me, aside from graciously looking for a way to make Turn more comfortable while she settled into the idea of a non-binary person. Ava certainly doesn’t identify as she any more than they identify as he.

So what Ava taught me – among other things – is that pronouns matter a lot in writing a character, and playing with gender in a story can make an enormous difference in the end to how a character feels and lives and acts through an author. They also taught me that I could write characters like this, that I didn’t have to be afraid of it just because not many other people are doing it (though I’m so happy to see that it’s becoming less uncommon). I could open my fictional worlds up to people who are more like me, and while that might be obvious to some people, it’s also easier for some people, and it was liberating when I really started to internalize that.

So Ava’s important, and what they taught me has been important. I’m not sure what state they’ll be in at the end of Rookwar. But whatever happens between now and then, I’m grateful.

Later this week/early next week I’ll be posting the first chapter of Ravenfall, so watch for that.

 

All that we see or seem

307

Two things happened in the last month. The first is that I came out to my students – gender-wise, and my unconformity. The second is that I wrote a thing for my department’s newsletter about social media and how I use it. I didn’t realize those how connected those things were until about ten minutes ago.

There’s a third thing that I think might be behind most of that connection, which is that I will not be receiving funding next year. That in itself isn’t necessarily something to be angry about – I got more than a lot of grad students get, nationwide – but how it happened was, without going into detail, less than satisfactory, and I’ve been doing some major reevaluating about my place here and my relationship with this institution and what it all means to me personally. And what started as real anger has turned into a kind of freedom I didn’t expect.

I don’t care anymore.

Which, ironically, might mean that I can actually care about the right things for the first time in my entire graduate school career.

So  I came out to my students. I explained what “genderqueer” meant, and then I put myself up there as an example. I did it mostly in passing – an “and I’m that, so you know what that is already” – but it felt big.

It’s not the first time I’ve come out to a class, and it wasn’t the first time this semester where I used myself as an example. I’m a weird confluence of identity categories, exactly like most people: white, middle/upper middle class in many respects but growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood on a lower middle class income, born with a female body but not identifying that way in terms of my gender, sexually sort of all over the place, able-bodied but possessing a wacky constellation of mental illnesses, disorders, and cognitive disabilities. Whatever, nobody’s normal, we all agreed. There’s no such thing.

I had not yet been informed that I wouldn’t be funded. Maybe some part of me knew already that this semester was different.

It’s always an interesting question, how much of yourself you reveal to a class. How much of yourself you reveal to yourself. Coming out to someone about anything strange or uncomfortable makes that person into kind of a mirror; see yourself through their eyes and suddenly you might see something different. It might not be true, but it’s there. In my mid-twenties I came to an understanding of myself as genderqueer, but I’ve never been comfortable with gender, and I’ve never been comfortable with my body, and I’ve always felt like my mind was actively trying to hurt me. I’m not comfortable with anything. At all. Ever. But life has become a process of getting to be Okay with that, and talking about it to other people is part of how I’ve been getting there.

So then I wasn’t funded, and while I’ve been decoupling from Giving A Shit since my comprehensive exams, this finally kicked me away completely.

Abruptly I was saying everything. I was just talking. I told them a lot, in private and in the classroom itself. My final class, I sat on a table in front of my students and I told them the story of the last few weeks. I told them I wouldn’t be teaching again in the fall and how sad that made me. I told them how angry I was. I told them about how diseased higher education is, and about how increasingly their own institutions are cheating them. And I told them what I had realized, after many conversations with wise people: We don’t have to stay here. We don’t have to chain ourselves to failing institutions. We can make space elsewhere for the work we want to do. For some of us it’s easy and for some of us it’s so much harder, but we have to try. Those of us with power have to step back and empower others. It’s painful, this kind of self-confrontation.

But it was more painful to keep lying to them, and lying by omission is still a lie.

I’ve made 2014 the year I started writing my rage, and now I’m making it the year I stopped lying and started talking. I’m making this space aggressively, with my fists and my fingernails and my feet, with my tongue and my teeth. I’m learning how to live in my body. I’m working on not being afraid anymore.

I wrote this for the newsletter, among other things:

We’re taught that we’re not supposed to do that, to be vulnerable. Life teaches us this, but I think academia teaches it especially hard. When you’re in graduate school you’re highly susceptible to fear—What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to find a job? What do all these faculty think of me? How am I coming off? Does so and so hate me? Am I letting people down? Oh God. That kind of fear can break you, but keeping it inside for even greater fear of looking weak makes it even worse, and at some point I decided I couldn’t do that anymore.

It’s more terrifying for me, now, to continue to pretend I’m not terrified. So I’m going to stop. I’m going to dare to be a human being in the most public of ways. We’ll see what happens.

~

Sometimes, when I’m in a certain place in my head, I imagine slicing my chest open with a boxcutter. Somehow it’s sharp enough to pierce the sternum, and I pull my ribcage apart with my bare hands. A flock of crows explodes into the air. There’s never any blood. Inside I’m smooth and clean and full of whispering birds.