SDCC Panel on Love in the Time of YA

Last month (July) I attended San Diego Comicon along with perhaps 160,000 other people (I’m not sure of the numbers). I had the honor of participating in a great panel moderated by the excellent Mary Pearson, with panelists Alexandra Bracken, Andrea Cremer, Kami Garcia, Amy Tintera, and Brenna Yovanoff. I was impressed with how well Mary ran it, and what great comments everyone had.

Even better, the panel was recorded and now you can watch it:

The Book Smugglers’ SFF Roundtable

Kate Elliott is one of five fantasy authors, all of whom have new novels out, who participated in The Book Smugglers’ recent SFF in Conversation roundtable. Together with Zen Cho (Sorcerer to the Crown), Aliette de Bodard (The House of Shattered Wings), Cindy Pon (Serpentine), and Tade Thompson (Making Wolf), Elliott discusses how culture and history inform their respective writing, expectations of SFF Western audiences, and diversity within the genre.

We have curiosity, imagination, and empathy for a reason: To build gates and windows into places that aren’t us. Story creates connection.

Court of Fives is set in a fantasy world inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt, the history of Hawaii’s annexation and cultural renaissance, the sports/obstacle course game show Sasuke/American Ninja Warrior, and the 19th century novel Little Women. Across time and regions, cultures have met and mingled and influenced each other, and as the child of an immigrant I think that mindset of how things connect and how they change each other is what I often bring to my writing. I’m always exploring the crossroads.

Read more at The Book Smugglers.
SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers where guests talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. “Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF.”

Eater of Books Guest Post

Continuing on her COURT OF FIVES blog tour, Kate Elliott discusses “Creating a World with Regressed Women’s Rights” at The Eater of Books:

I’ve seen a few readers refer to the novel as a dystopia. That surprised me because I did not write it as a dystopia, and I never intended to write a book that fit into the dystopian genre of YA…

In fact over and over again I rarely needed to make up ways in which the women of the Court of Fives world labor under regressed rights. All I had to do was borrow from actual historical legal traditions.

Read the full post at The Eater of Books.


As always, COURT OF FIVES is now available at your local independent bookstore, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other online and bricks and mortar stores TODAY (USA & Canada only).

The Shame of Self Aggrandizement (Spiritwalker Monday 18)

In a post dated January 2012 that consisted of an update and several links to reviews of Cold Magic and Cold Fire (here on WordPress and mirrored on Live Journal):
I wrote:

There’s a part of me that feels it is wrong for me to link to positive mentions of my work like the ones above, as if I am thereby somehow self aggrandizing or bragging or trying to act like I’m better than others or something. This is some of the baggage I carry from growing up as a girl in the 60s and 70s. I’m not quite sure from whence it stems, and I can certainly only speak to my own experience. Partly, it seemed to me that girls were meant to do well but never excel more than boys and certainly if they did excel weren’t ever to say anything of it because it was unseemly and boastful and something one ought to be ashamed of. In fact, there is a little piece of my psyche that feels ashamed (yes: ashamed!) when I read a [really positive and praising] review.


In the comments on Live Journal, lostrack621 wrote this in reply:

You nailed it right on the head; but I would go as far as to say that it’s not just related to the time you were growing up. I feel the same way, too, and I’m an ’80s child. I’m a member of the Association for Women in Science and there was an article recently about how one of the big issues and problems with women in science today (and arguably other fields) is that we are taught that bragging and taking ownership and simply being darn proud of our work is somehow “bad” and frowned upon. Part of it probably comes from the ’50s and ’60s, but the big issue is WHY is this belief persisting and what can be done to stop it. Every month there’s a new blurb about how to become more productive, well-known, etc etc because for some reason, we women are STILL behind the men. I mean, JEEZE LOUISE, we do these amazing things and there is no reason to feel bad about tooting our horns about it but for some crazy reason we do. So, I don’t know how we – collectively as amazing women – can break down these barriers other than doing what we’re best at and keep doing what we know is working for us. :: shrug :: I’ve come to the point where I just keep my head down and slog through (speaking of, I should get back to my work….)


First of all, I don’t want to suggest that ONLY women get this message because I know of men who get it, or who feel it, also.

“Simply being proud of our own work:” Amazing how contentious that can be. How difficult to own, as if it is shameful to say “I love this project” or “I really nailed this.” That can expand to discussing one’s own work in appropriate contexts, as if one ought to just produce the work and then never mention it again because that would be immodest or self aggrandizing. [I am not talking about situations where people push their project, work, or title into every conversation, but note that I feel obliged to make that caveat, as if I am sure that even by discussing this someone out there will be thinking that I am saying too much or that they once sat on a panel with a person whose every answer/statement was a reference to his/her own book, as if that is equivalent, related, the inevitable end of any mention substantive or brief of one’s own work.]

What is this? How many of you feel it? Where does the pressure come from?

I have felt undercut at odd times from unexpected places, and I often wonder if “we” even know we are doing it, if we judge praise or discussion of praise more harshly and if there is a gender–or race or ethnicity–component in how we do so. Is there praise that is never questioned and success that is deemed always “appropriate?” While other success is always suspect?

How about your own personal experience? Do you, like lostrack621, feel that “taking ownership” is frowned on in your field, for you? For others?


Why Cat Sews (Spiritwalker Monday 30)

(Note for the spoiler-wary: I have done my best to eschew spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books, there are vague references to plot herein, but I have tried to make this post basically spoiler-free except in the mildest way. If you have read the books, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.)


In chapter 1 of Cold Magic, our heroine Cat Barahal sneaks downstairs at dawn to return a book she’s not been given permission to remove from her uncle’s library. It’s clear she is well educated and from a family with a high degree of education for girls as well as boys.

While in the parlor, Cat notes that

(a)ll eight mending baskets were set neatly in a row on the narrow side table, for the women of the house–Aunt Tilly, me, Beatrice, her little sisters, our governess, Cook, and Callie–would sit in the parlor in the evening and sew while Uncle or Evved read aloud from a book and Pompey trimmed the candle wicks.

This sentence is meant mostly to describe the poverty of the household. I don’t go into detail about the arrangements, but the reader may guess that the family does not have enough money to heat and light more than one room in the evening.

Another way to show their straitened circumstances is to show that they sew almost all of their own clothing because they can’t afford to have their clothes made by others (the book is set before the era of inexpensive ready-to-wear clothing that can be bought off the rack in clothing stores). Mending is also a crucial part of economy, as well as refurbishing older clothes, re-purposing worn garments, and re-fitting them for a different person.

The mention of sewing, and how the family mostly makes their own clothes, also tells us something about the world, a time in which sewing, knitting, weaving, and other fabric crafts are not a luxury or a hobby but a necessity. People who could not afford bespoke clothing (made to measure by a tailor or dressmaker) had either to sew their own, buy used clothing at markets, or hope to obtain cast-off or stolen items by other means.

Sewing is mentioned in a second context as well:

Our governness, Shiffa, had been imported all the way from the Barahal motherhouse in Gadir to teach us girls deportment, fencing, dancing, sewing, and how to memorize large blocks of text so we could write them down or repeat them later.

Cat is portrayed as a sensible, practical girl who has learned a number of skills, some of which are specifically tailored to the role all children of the extended Hassi Barahal clan are expected to take up in service of the clan’s business, which is that of mercenaries, spies, and couriers. Fencing and memorizing text are skills clearly useful for spies and couriers. Fighting and spying are also skills that adventure novels highlight.

In book two, Cold Fire, Cat is thrown out into the wide world alone and far afield from the place she grew up. Basically, she finds herself with the clothes on her back and her sword as her only possessions. It would have been easy for me at this point to focus on Cat’s sword-craft.

Being confident with a sword is a useful competency for a young woman unexpectedly out on her own in an insecure and often dangerous world. Her ability to use the sword could become the most important and most visible of her skills as she continues her adventures.

But I did not want to imply that the skills most important to her ability to adapt to her new circumstances were solely or chiefly the skills that have long been culturally identified as “masculine,” such as fencing (fighting). I wanted to depict skills identified (in American society but by no means in all societies) as “feminine” as equally important to her survival.

Why? Because as a society we often tend to value the “masculine” over the “feminine.” “Masculine” is public and strong, “feminine” is private and (often) sexual, and frequently “feminine” concerns are defined as trivial and unimportant. Such definitions are cultural constructs, as is the relative value assigned to various skills and experiences.

For instance, is reading a “masculine” skill? In places and times when the literacy rate of men far outpaced that of women, or when boys were far more likely to be given an education than girls, reading was considered a masculine pursuit. It’s easy to forget that today, when one of the common assumptions in the USA today (again, this will be different in different places) is that girls somehow naturally tend to be better at reading than boys. This idea is pervasive now but in other times and places would have been considered radical or ridiculous.

What is Cat’s most important “possession?” What does she see it as? When Cat washes up in Expedition, she acts to secure the good will of the woman who has shown her hospitality by describing the skills she thinks would interest her host.

“Can I help in some way? I’m a good worker. I know how to sew, cook, read, and write. I must tell you, I have nothing, no coin, no possessions, nothing but my labor to offer you.”

Competency and willingness to work matter when it comes time for a character to adapt to new situations. Competent characters are more likely to adapt successfully regardless of whether their skills are culturally identified as masculine or feminine, of course, but as a society we tend to depict stereotypically “masculine” skills as more valuable or just tend to depict those skills at all, as if they are the only ones “people” will be willing to or interested in reading about.

In fact, a wide range of skills are necessary for societies to hold together, and in a fully realized world it is important to acknowledge more than a limited few.

In Cold Fire, Cat’s skill at sewing gives her a way to make a place for herself in her new circumstances. It gives her a bit of status and respect, and as well creates an interesting contrast to her old life because in the city of Expedition, sewing (as well as tailoring for both men and women) is a predominantly male profession. Additionally, she mends while conversing with other women (because hand-work like sewing is a job that can be done while listening and talking), and the ties she builds with other people are crucial to her success in being accepted in a new place.

Sewing helps her to survive.

As a character, Cat sews because in the cultural landscape and time she grew up, she would have learned how to sew. She sews well because sewing well is a challenge she relishes. Because she likes fashionable clothes that flatter her figure, sewing is the only way she has to fit herself in such clothing.

As a writer, I emphasize Cat’s sewing because it is true to the character and the time and  because it works well within the plot.

I emphasize her sewing because it allows me to give life to the world through details of daily life that intersect with the character and the plot rather than simply using discrete details pinned on like photos or backdrops. Sewing is a detail that helps to illuminate Cat: She is a very physical character, very active, and of course very talkative, but her facility at sewing also reveals that she is painstaking, likes to do things well, and that despite her talkative nature she is also a good listener.

Finally, I emphasize her sewing because I want to make a statement about the importance of all the different kinds of work that underpin human society, especially those that, in my experience, are too often brushed aside in the science and fantasy fiction that I love to both read and write.

The Omniscient Breasts

After years of thinking about this issue, and inspired by a comment on Twitter about omniscient breasts, I have finally written a post on the male gaze, the female gaze, and sexualized women in fantasy and science fiction novels.

Imagine a female pov character is going along about her protagonist adventure, seeing things from her perspective of the world as written in third person. She hears, sees, considers, and makes decisions and reacts based on her view of the world and what she is aware of and encounters. Abruptly, a description is dropped into the text of her secondary sexual characteristics usually in the form of soft-focus Playboy-Magazine-style sexualized kitten-bunny-I-would-fuck-her-in-a-heartbeat lustrous-eyes-and-nipples phrases. Her breasts have just become omniscient breasts.


You can read the whole thing over at Hugo-award-winning weblog & fanzine SFSignal.

Guest Post: D.B. Jackson on the history that isn’t taught

I’m pleased to have author D. B. Jackson here today to talk about his new historical fantasy mystery release, THIEFTAKER, set in colonial Boston.

By the way, this is what I said about the novel: Thieftaker is an excellent blend of mystery and magic set in the turmoil of Colonial Boston as revolution brews and political factions collide. The setting is vividly painted, and the story is a fine portrait of a man caught between his bitter past and its legacy, and the constant dangers and reversals that dog his attempts to build a new life for himself.”


Did you know that throughout his adult life, Samuel Adams was afflicted with a mild palsy that made his head and hands tremble?  I hadn’t known either.

Did you know that women in Colonial Boston — and other North American cities in the second half of the 1700s — enjoyed a good deal of financial and social independence, and that it was not at all uncommon to find single women, usually widows, running their own shops and taverns?

How about this one:  Did you know that in the 1760s, at least until the British occupation of the city began in the autumn of 1768, Boston had only one law enforcement official of consequence?  It’s true.  His name was Stephen Greenleaf and though he was Sheriff of Suffolk County, he had no officers at his command, no assistants to help him keep the peace, save for the men of the night watch who were almost universally incompetent, or venal, or both.

My newest book, THIEFTAKER, which was released by Tor earlier this week, is the first book in a historical urban fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston.  The series follows the adventures of Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker, as he solves murders and grapples with the implications of the deepening divisions between the colonies and the Crown.  I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and though I often used my history background in the worldbuilding I did for my earlier fantasy novels, this is the first project I have undertaken that allowed me to blend fully my interest in history and my love of fantasy.

Not surprisingly, I had to do a tremendous amount of research for THIEFTAKER, its sequel (THIEVES’ QUARRY, Tor, 2013), and several related short stories.  And one of the things that struck me again and again while I was reading through documents and monographs, was that so much of the past is lost to us in the glare of Important Events and Important People.  As Kate put it to me as we were exchanging ideas for this post, “What about the history that isn’t taught?”

By way of example: THIEFTAKER begins on August 26, 1765, a night when a mob of protesters rioted in the streets of Boston to vent their frustration at Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act.  (In the book, the riots coincide with a murder that Ethan has to investigate.  But I digress.)  The homes of several British officials were ransacked, most notably that of Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.  Hutchinson blamed James Otis and Samuel Adams for much of what happened that night, viewing them, with some justification, as the leaders of the growing rebel movement.  But one name you almost never find in history textbooks is that of Ebenezer Mackintosh.  Great name, right?  You might think that a man with such a name would attract some historical attention, especially when you learn that he was the leader of the mob responsible for so much destruction and subsequent political upheaval.  But though as a co-called “street captain” he had a strong following among laborers and unskilled workers in Boston, he was never “important” enough in more formal political circles to draw the attention of scholars.  That said, he does play a crucial role in THIEFTAKER, as do Samuel Adams and Sheriff Greenleaf.

In addition to learning about some of the people who don’t usually find their way into “taught” history, I also learned a tremendous amount about the city of Boston itself, including the ways in which city officials sought to adjust to circumstances as population centers grew, making urban life more complicated.  During the middle decades of the eighteenth century, Boston experienced a number of devastating fires, not least among them the Great Cornhill Fire of March 20, 1760.  This fire began at a tavern called the Brazen Head and swept through the South End down to Boston Harbor, destroying three hundred forty-nine buildings and leaving more than a thousand people homeless.  Miraculously, no one was killed.  (I should note here that I have written a short story about this event — “The Tavern Fire” — which appeared in the AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR anthology edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray.  The story can now be found at the D.B. Jackson website.

The spate of fires that struck Boston changed the cityscape.  After Boston’s Town House burned to the ground in the fire of 1711, the new one — the now famous Old State House — was rebuilt in brick.  In the aftermath of the 1760 fire, city leaders passed an ordinance mandating that all new construction in Boston be done in brick or stone rather than wood. Faneuil Hall, which was destroyed in the Cornhill fire, was rebuilt in 1761 in its present form, again in brick.  Moreover, noting that attempts to combat the blaze were hampered by lanes that were too winding and narrow, city officials also decreed that several of the smaller lanes in the Cornhill section of the city be widened and straightened.  As a result of the fires, Boston in 1765 looked far more like a modern city than it had only half a century before and by the end of that year, many of the landmarks we associate with Boston were already in place.

Finally, to bring this discussion full circle, I should add that in the aftermath of the Cornhill fire, one of Boston’s tax collectors refrained from demanding payment from those citizens most grievously affected by the catastrophe.  He had no permission from his superiors to do this, but he felt that those most in need should be relieved from having to pay.  His name?  Samuel Adams, of course.  As it turns out, Adams might have been a political genius, but his personal finances were a mess.  Several times, he almost lost his home at auction because of his personal debts.  And his poor relationship with money extended to his early public service.  In the early 1760s, a committee of the town meeting did an audit to determine why the city of Boston suddenly found itself in a financial crisis.  The audit determined that tax collectors had failed to bring in some four thousand pounds owed by the citizenry.  Adams alone was responsible for more than half of the shortfall.

These lesser known historical facts are more than entertaining.  They are tiny gems that make a historical narrative sparkle, that add depth and flavor and richness to a historical setting.  Getting the details right on things like the Stamp Act and even the riots that took place the night of August 26, 1765, was relatively easy.  Over the years, much has been written about those topics.  But the “untaught” history, the small details that are harder to find, are also the ones that catch readers by surprise, that draw them deeper into both character and story.  And, I have to admit, they are also the rewards of historical research that I value most.  After all, readers aren’t the only ones who need to be entertained; this should be fun for us writers, too.

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books on July 3. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

Cultural Imperialism Bingo, Beta Readers, Writers and Depression: Links

I meant to do an entire blog post to boost the signal for The Western Cultural Imperialism Bingo Card but Family Stuff has intervened so I will instead link you to Aliette de Bodard’s blog where, if you so choose (and you haven’t already), you can read all about it.

I just want to make a brief comment. Because of time zones and my geographical position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I often frequent Twitter at hours when I’m more likely to engage with an international contingent than a USA contingent. Thus I inadvertently became involved in the bingo card development, although very much as a secondary player. I know some people don’t care for the bingo cards, and that’s cool. I don’t think it’s required that everyone like them or link to them or find them useful. I personally think they serve a useful purpose because I don’t see them as representing the entirety of people’s thinking on these complex matters; they’re just one of a number of tools that can be used to discuss or provoke or illuminate, but mostly I see them as a way to get past the usual conversation-stoppers and into potentially more nuanced and productive conversations. This is just my personal opinion; I’m not speaking for anyone else.


Donna M Hanson interviewed me as part of her series on using beta readers.

An excellent beta reader reads the story that is there and comments on how well it works. A poor beta reader reads the story and comments on the way they would want it written.


Writer Saladin Ahmed (I gave a quote for his debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon) writes about depression and isolation. Sobering and honest.


Looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds

This post is slightly adapted from a conversation I held with Ken Scholes on (now defunct) Babel Clash in September 2009. I was inspired to dig up the old post from a reference to it made in another September 2009 post by Aliette de Bodard on Female protagonists in historical fantasy, which she had reason to refer to today on Twitter. de Bodard’s post is just as fresh and important today as it was then, as alas this subject comes up with discouraging regularity.

I wanted to talk about how writers can try to find a way out of the assumptions they may be bringing to the table when deciding whether and how much to introduce female characters into fantasy novels whose settings are based on a version of the past. That is, they may be historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy derived from research into our own historical past.

Even in patriarchal societies of the past (and present!), women who might otherwise have been banned by custom or law from partaking in the public life of politics, power, learning, work and so on still had personalities. I can’t emphasize this enough. People–even women!–have personalities regardless of how much or how little political power they have. People can live a quiet life of daily work out of the public eye, and still have personalities. Really! They can still matter to those around them, they can matter to themselves, and they can influence events in orthogonal ways that any self respecting writer can easily dream up.

Furthermore, with a little careful study of history, one discovers that women found ways to accomplish plenty of “things” big and small, personal and political. Maybe they did it behind a screen, or around the corner, or in the back room or in a parlor, or ran the brewery they inherited from a deceased husband, but they did all kinds of stuff that was either never noticed or was elided from historical accounts.  So much of our view of what women “did” in the past is mediated through accounts written by men who either didn’t see women or were so convinced (yes, I’m looking at you, Aristotle, but you are but one among many) that women were an inferior creature that what they wrote was not only biased but selectively blind. Even now, in “modern” day, so much is mediated by our assumptions about what “doing” means and by our prejudices and misconceptions about the past.

In reality, while women in many cultures worldwide had (and have) fewer legal rights as well as often living in constrained or deplorably oppressive circumstances, they still had (and have) minds and hands and hearts. Weird about that. Women have found ways to use their minds and hands and hearts, because people do. They may even have been happy and productive and respected.

In the last few decades, historical scholarship has been expanding the scope of who and what merits examination. Historians have excavated the lives of women so long overlooked and ignored.

Writers writing stories that deal with power politics in the age of palaces would do well, for instance, to check out a book like Servants of the Dynasty:  Palace Women in World History, edited by Anne Walthall.  This cross cultural study of palace women in a number of pre-modern societies worldwide does not sugarcoat or distort the realities of women’s lives, but it also illuminates the many misconceptions people may have about women in such societies and in such specific circumstances, awake within the halls of power.

The scholarship on women in medieval Europe is extensive. I own too many titles to list them here, but one might start with a book like Singlewomen in the European Past: 1250-1800, edited by Judith M. Bennett and Amy M. Froide.

I have fewer non-European studies that specifically deal with women’s history, although I’m expanding my library as I find new (to me) material, books like Women Writing Africa: West Africa and the Sahel, edited by Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, and Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas by Barbara A. Mann.

This kind of reading will open up possibilities for writers who may be having trouble figuring out where women “fit” into epic/high fantasy, but they’re so very valuable for anyone, really. There are other places to look as well, sources well outside the hierarchical boundaries of academic scholarship.

The key, I suspect, is wanting to open the door.

The narrative of women in fear and pain

My spouse and I started watching Fringe to see if we would like it. The first episode was cool except for the cliched and unnecessary “put the female lead in her underwear” scene. Undressed scenes are what killed my interest in watching the US remake of Nikita with Maggie Q because I could not get past the gratuitous bikini and lingerie scenes in the pilot, which were evidently needed to undercut the fact that she is meant to be a dangerous and out of control assassin and perhaps to attract a male viewership evidently deemed (by the producers and writers) too sexist to be willing to watch a show with a woman lead unless she is undressed for them. I don’t know, maybe some other reason. What I do know is that the plot did not need the undressing for the scenes to work.

But then in the second episode of Fringe they went right for a “serial killer of young attractive women” plot for no reason other than there is evidently something in Hollywood or maybe our culture that gets off on these scenes of young women in poses of sexual passivity being terrified and mutilated and screaming screaming screaming. I had to walk out of the room because not only am I sick of it but it creeps me out.

I’m not creeped out by the knowledge that terrible things happen to young women (and old women, and children and men and all manner of people especially those who are vulnerable and unprotected). I’m outraged and saddened by that knowledge, and I honestly think there is an important and even vital place in our literature (books, film, etc) for strong, fearless depictions of suffering and injustice, so we don’t lose sight of what we must strive to change. The people who suffer must not be silenced because of the discomfort of others who don’t want to be forced to acknowledge, to see, that suffering and injustice exists.

But I *am* creeped out that images and portrayals of young women in positions of sexualized passivity who are in fear and in pain are used over and over again AS ENTERTAINMENT, to give us a thrill, to make our hearts pound.

I remember the time a couple of years ago I went with my daughter, then 20, to a video store (remember those?) to get a movie to watch for the night.

After about five minutes she said, “Mom, I can’t stand to look at all these DVD covers because so many of them show women in poses of fear or pain and it really disturbs me like it is telling me that this is the story I have to internalize about becoming a woman.”
And I realized I had gotten so used to it–had gotten myself used to it–that when I browsed through a video store looking at film posters & DVD covers filled with shocking images of objectified and sexualized women in fear and pain, I just skipped my gaze right over it like it was ordinary and nothing to remark on. I had learned to stop seeing it as much as possible. It had become ordinary and nothing to remark on.

That brought me up short. I had hardened myself to it, and I had just assumed that my daughter would grow up learning to harden herself to it. But she couldn’t, or maybe she didn’t want to. Maybe she thought she shouldn’t have to.

It made me think about how when I write I have to struggle against the idea, sunk down deep inside me, that when I write about women they have to be afraid or they have to be in pain.

Too often when the stories of women in fear and pain are told, we are seeing them in pain, we are being pushed into the perspective not of the woman who is suffering pain but into the perspective of the person inflicting the pain.

We’re constantly being asked to identify with inflicting pain on others.

Of course we are. You don’t just take over the other person’s life and body; you also take their voice, their dreams, their perspective. You take their right to speak and leave them with only the power to suffer, a suffering that can be lifted from them by death or by rescue but always by an agency outside themselves. You take their eyes and turn them into your eyes, your gaze, your way of looking at the world. When such stories are told in this way, they reinforce the perspective of the person who is watching the voiceless have no voice.

But while it is important to say “let’s stop telling those stories then because they exploit women and furthermore perpetuate the view of women as victims whose only role is to suffer fear and pain,” I would go on to suggest that it is not quite that simple. It isn’t binary; it’s not either/or. And furthermore, all stories of women’s fear and pain are not the same because it does make a difference from what perspective we see.

In her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers (written with Carol Mithers), Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Ghobee of Liberia talks about discovering the need to find spaces in which women could tell their stories. Some of the stories she heard were stories that came out of the civil wars  that wracked Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone; others were stories that had to do with untold experiences within families, the kind of thing no one wants to talk about no matter where it happens. She writes:

Each speaker wept with relief when she finished; each spoke the same words: “This is the first time I have ever told this story . . . ”

Does it sound like a small thing that the women I met were able to talk openly? It was not small; it was groundbreaking. . . . Everyone was alone with her pain.

Everyone was alone with her pain.

That line stabs me in the heart. I do not want me, or you, or anyone to be alone with the pain.

Yes, I get angry and creeped out when I see and read stories about women in fear and pain, seen from the outside, looking down on them, inflicting pain on them through the gaze of the story.

I get especially angry when I’m told that these are the only or the most realistic stories, that they trump any other way of looking at the lives of women. Because they don’t.  This perspective looks in only one direction; that makes it an incomplete, biased, subjective, and even warped perspective.

You see, I worry that it is another form of silencing when women’s stories of fear and pain are not given voice when the voice is theirs or when an incident of violence or fear is told from the perspective of the person who undergoes that experience, who must live with it, be changed by it, internalize it, fight against the injury it has done to her, build or continue her life, live defined by herself and not by her injury.

I worry that it is another form of silencing when all such stories are seen as the same without considering from whose perspective they’re being told. It is not a small thing to speak up and to hear stories and voices that have long been silenced.

There are indeed too many stories that fixate on women’s fear and pain, and more than that, in my opinion too often it is the wrong stories that get the attention, the wrong stories that are held up as the right ones, the only ones, the most authentic ones. The truth is usually difficult and complex and often so painful that it is easier to look away. All too often, silence is the ally of the powerful.

So, yes, I will rage against the exploitative portrayals of sexualized violence, of women in fear and pain. But I will also remember the women who never told their story because there was no one to listen.