Monday, June 17, 2013

The World's A Stage, Or Is It?

Originally posted on the Diversity in YA blog by Sarah Rees Brennan.

The Demon’s Lexicon series is all about roles.

I started the first book, The Demon’s Lexicon, thinking about the role of Mr. Tall, Dark, Handsome and Morally Really Freaking Dodgy, and how we almost never get that guy’s point of view, and what he’d be like from the inside. Almost unforgivably awful, maybe, because you know how bad he is from the start, and you aren’t distracted by his good looks and dashing ways. What’s it like to look into the abyss? And what makes an abyss, anyway?

That was the role that started the ball, ahem, rolling. (Everybody groans and tosses rotten fruit.) From there I thought about roles, and the different ways I could play with them, like genderswitching: what if the hero of an epic fantasy — you know the type, rash and brave and honest and initially clueless — was a girl, what if the Mother Who Would Give Up/Do Anything For Her Kid was a boy?

Some of my ideas were just about going beyond a role, because some roles are true as far as they go, but people are so complex they never go far enough. Such as the gay guy who presents as weaker than other guys — what if he was physically weaker and smaller, and also quite deliberately presenting himself in a certain way, and also a huge magical badass?

All three books are told from a different point of view, which is a weird move generally speaking, but which I felt was right for this series: seeing the world wider, and people in a million different ways, is how you explore roles.

UK Cover
The third and final book in the series, The Demon’s Surrender, is told from the point of view of Sin, a biracial girl who helps run a secret magical market and who dances up demons.

Here’s a role for you: the role of the “exotic dancer.” I have seen them in several zillion movies and books and TV shows, some good and some bad. Most recently in Game of Thrones, which I like quite a bit in other ways! I recall them from in between episodes of passing out with rage during the movie Alexander. I vividly recall reading the phrase “dusky-skinned charmer” in H. Rider Haggard.

Break a role to pieces and you can examine them. A woman who’s a PoC being a good dancer, or being sexy? Nothing wrong with that. But it’s complicated, because of people’s attitudes to women being sexy at all, especially black women: because of people’s assumptions. (And you know what people say about those who assume. But people do it anyway.)

In most of the books and movies and shows I saw, these women were put in the background, not front and centre. So, first move for any character: give her a voice. You can bet they’ll have something to say.

The second book of the series, my agent and editor suggested I change narrators from the one I originally intended, and I think they were totally right. But for the third book, from the start, from before I wrote a word of the first, I said: Sin, Sin, Sin. It has to be her, please can it be her, I want her. This book is hers.

And they said yes, for which I will forevermore be thankful.

US Cover
There’s another thing about dancers, about entertainers of all kinds: they’re performing. They more than anyone else are consciously acting out a role. So why is she acting, how much of her act is real, what is she doing it for? It’s Sin’s job to be aware of how people perceive her, and she takes on some of it and uses it, takes some of it to heart, and takes some of it and tosses it aside. The situation becomes immediately more complex, once you start thinking of whys and wherefores. The role’s a job: she has to make money because she’s responsible for her much younger half-siblings — and those half-siblings she holds so dear are white, and people who see them on the street assume she’s not even related to them. The role’s a vocation, so it’s part of who she is, but not all she is.

Here’s a problem: the role Nick, Mr. Tall Dark &c, plays in the series is a role played by a white guy with a bunch of issues: that’s a main role we get to see every day, a role that gets forgiven a lot of things, a role that if I didn’t get right a bunch of other people would. Let’s face it, “White Dude With Some Issues” could be the title of seventy per cent of movies and books out there. (We switch it to “White Dude With Some Issues (Who Is My Boyfriend)” I think we could make it to eighty per cent.)

I’m a girl, not a guy, and I’m white, not black, so in both cases I was writing from the point of view of someone I wasn’t. But there’s a lot more hurt to be inflicted if I got Sin wrong. And with writing, the chances of getting something wrong are high indeed. But it was something I felt I had to do. And it is something I feel like writers should do: write what they want and feel called to write, and write about the world the way it is. Writers should give every story in them a voice and a time to speak.

E.M. Forster was a gay guy who wrote about how it was kind of hard to be a lady in A Room With A View, and most people think that’s a pretty good book. Swati Avasthi is a woman and a PoC, and she wrote Split, a truly wonderful book about brotherly bonds and messed-up family, from a white guy’s point of view. I’m grateful for both those books, and many many more, for people who write outside and inside their experience and try their best to say everything they have to say. I did try my best: I may have got it entirely wrong, for which I apologise! But I think it’s best to try.

And it was a lot of fun. The world’s at its best to write about when it’s the real world, with things added and not taken away.

People talk about writing characters “who just happen to be” something, and in some ways I see what they mean. Sarah Jae-Jones, a wonderful editor at St. Martin’s Press, and I were walking through a bookshop the other day talking about how we always avoided issue books as kids. Because they were just going to be about someone being one thing! Because they were always depressing, and the dog always died!

I’m grown up now (kinda … officially, anyway) and I love a lot of issue books. But I still want to see people in books that are magical adventures who are diverse, and informed by that. Nobody “just happens to be” anything. Harry Potter wouldn’t have been the character he was if he wasn’t informed by his background. Everybody is. But that wasn’t all he was, and he also got to have millions of adventures that had nothing to do with said background. That, I think, is what people are asking for.

The Demon’s Lexicon universe was enormously fun to play with, and designed to talk about who people are in the context of magical adventures. That’s what fantasy does: lets you write about the real world in words that shine crimson and gold. Demons in that world steal bodies, so — how far does a body determine who you are? Name a demon, and you control it — what is the power of a name, or in a renaming? What do you call yourself?

One of the main characters in the series is re-named by his brother. One of them names herself after an icon she admires. Sin’s full first name is Cynthia, and when she hits puberty people start spelling her nickname “Sin” instead of “Cyn — and after being taken aback and somewhat hurt, she embraces that as a stage name: takes other people’s perceptions of her and uses it. But it’s also not the only name people call her. Her father calls her Thea.

One of the main characters presents as stereotypically “manly” — but this is meant to challenge the idea of what makes a “real man” as he’s a demon, who can choose and switch their genders, and change their bodies in other ways. The bodies of all the human characters are in a very real way under threat: of possession, of control, which lets you talk about the threats human bodies face in the real world.

Sin’s body is something she uses, that it’s vital for her to use: for performances, and also to fight with, in a world of constant danger where she has people to protect — but other people are wrong when they see it as theirs to use. When a demon takes a romantic interest in her, it’s simply an extension of the way other people have seen her: something that can be possessed. Sin also feels plenty of sexual attraction herself, and how do you negotiate that — it’s complicated to be seen as sexy and other things besides sexy. What’s love but really being seen, and how do you learn to see others, and how do you get other people to see you?

These issues are really, really complicated. So are people. I don’t think there are any simple answers — I think there are billions, because every person has to decide on their own, and sometimes people change their minds — and I don’t think there should be.

But to keep on thinking, keep on talking, keep on turning ideas like these over and over, on their heads, seen from all the angles — that’s what I want to do as a writer, and what I tried to do with this series. 

I’m so glad I got to.

Sarah Rees Brennan was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it. The Demon’s Lexicon, her first novel, was published in summer 2009 and received three starred reviews, was one of Kirkus’ Best Books, ALA’s Top Ten Best Books, a Best British Fantasy book, shortlisted for the Cybils and longlisted for the Carnegie medal. It was followed by The Demon’s Covenant (2010), and the trilogy concludes with The Demon’s Surrender (2011). Her latest two books include Team Human, co-written with Justine Larbalestier, and Unspoken. Visit her website at

1 comment:

  1. Love this discussion, and love reading what went on under the skin of these fabulous characters. Some of this I got in reading, but honestly, some of this I missed because I was too busy turning pages. Time to reread!