It’s been a while, but it’s time for another edition of Non-Binary Authors to Read. If you’re new to this series, here’s where you can find part 1, 2, 3, and 4. Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get this part 5 party started!
Penny Stirling is an agender author from Western Australia. My recommended starting place for ous work is Kin, Painted from the Summer 2015 issue of Lackington’s Magazine. The language in this story is flat-out gorgeous. It concerns a family of artists, each with their skin painted or adorned in a way that both makes them a living work of art, and expresses something about their personality. The protagonist’s father is decorated with game boards for chess and backgammon worked into his skin, their mother is a dancer coated in glass and reflective paint, one of their sisters is a royal guard painted in camouflage, and one of their brothers, the lover of the Duchess’ son, is tattooed with roses from the Duchess’ garden. So it goes for every member of the family, except the protagonist who still struggles with how best to define themselves. Over the course of the story, they try on a myriad of different art forms – watercolor, ink, mosaic, chalk. Each attempt is lovingly described, as are the characters. Stirling gives readers a world of gender fluidity, of family, and of finding oneself. Each character feels fully realized, with their own arcs to follow in the tale. The result is a portrait (if you’ll excuse the pun) that feels epic, yet on an intimate scale. Taken all together, it’s a very worthy starting place for Stirling’s work.
Laurie Penny is an author, journalist, feminist, and activist. My recommended starting place for her work is How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist published at Buzzfeed. While Buzzfeed is better known for clickbait articles in the vein of 21 things you can list that will make people follow this link, Penny’s essay is heartfelt, honest, and speaks to a larger truth. In it, Penny discusses her own gender identity, and growing up feeling like she never fit in with either binary of girls or boys. Similar to David J. Schwartz essay about the restrictive nature of masculinity, which I discussed in an earlier installment of this series, Penny talks about how her early understanding of feminism was damaging to her. The restrictive category of female can be as problematic as the restrictive category of male. Penny’s journey took her through an eating disorder, suicidal ideation, questioning of her sexuality and gender identity, and eventually emerging on the other side to find a supportive community that helped her understand her identity. How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist is an important essay furthering the discussion around the spectrum of gender, pushing for less limited definitions, and showing there is room for a wide range of expressions of self. Hopefully it is the kind of piece that will help others struggling with their notions of who they are, and either way, it is a wonderful starting place for Penny’s work.
Sarah Benwell is a YA author, and my recommended starting place is the essay Knights, Defenders and Double-Edged Swords at Gay YA. The essay is brief, but important. It is a call to action, a call for representation of genderfluid characters in YA literature. It is the kind of thing, if acted upon might help youth going through the same journey Laurie Penny describes in her essay feel less alone. As most people are painfully aware, young adulthood is a formative time, and can be a confusing one. People try on identities and figure out who and how they want to be in the world. Many of us turn to literature for role models, and as Benwell points out a lack of genderfluid and non-binary characters can be actively damaging. To quote directly: How can anyone feel good, normal, okay, wanted, valued, if they cannot find themselves? With no role models to look up to, and no language to explain themselves? No stories. When society either confronts them or denies that they exist (and sometimes does both in one breath)? You can’t. We need representation. Erasure of marginalized groups is too common in literature overall, but in YA it’s especially impactful. Benwell’s essay draws attention to the importance of representation, and pushes for more of it across the field, making it an excellent starting place.
Alex Dally MacFarlane is an author, editor and historian. My recommended starting point for their work is Two Bright Venuses from Clockwork Phoenix 5. The story takes its inspiration from a real 17th century BCE astronomical record, which describes the rising of a superior and inferior Venus. The story posits two Venuses as fact. Because of their twin nature, exploration of them is only possible through a unique form of synchronicity – astronauts made to be exact mirrors of each other in every way, acting in complete unison. This is the kind of story that slips between the cracks of genre, straddling and blurring the line between science fiction and weird fiction. It is both a tale of space exploration, and a tale of ghosts, as the planet Venus reaches out to overwrite the astronauts trying to understand it. There are shades of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy here, as MacFarlane presents the reader with an unknowable Venus, a wild place that is ancient and changes those who try to explore it. The story also explores elements of identity as the astronauts, Inferior Irunn and Superior Irunn, are linked to both each other and the planet. Which feelings are truly their own, which are external to them? Where do the boundaries lie, and in the end, does it matter? What is self in the face of something so vast? There are hints of mythology at play, and while the story doesn’t necessarily give readers an easy path by explaining itself upfront, it is well worth it. The story is richer for making readers pay close attention and work to understand the shape the of the world. Haunted and haunting, it is an excellent starting place for MacFarlane’s work.
Four more authors, four more excellent works to read. As always, I invite you to leave your own suggestions for work by non-binary authors in the comments.