For the sake of my mental health, I’m trying not to track the reviews of my debut novel (Seven Ways We Lie) too obsessively. This is difficult for me. I have the curiosity of the proverbial dead cat, and Goodreads—Jesus Christ—Goodreads is right there. On the internet. My very own internet.
These days, I’m better about staying away from reviews. Still, I’ve perused quite a few, and one thing I’ve seen cropping up has me curious, maybe a little frustrated. I’d like to address it.
One of the narrators in Seven Ways We Lie is a pansexual guy. In reviews, I’ve seen him referred to as gay a couple times; he’s also been described by phrases along the lines of “figuring out/confused about his sexuality.” This keeps pawing at the back of my mind. This character says specifically that he’s not gay, he’s not bi: he’s pan. He’s not at all confused about it. He figured it out before the narrative begins.
So, if the character is clear about the way he labels himself—and I wrote it in as very deliberate—why is it getting misconstrued?
I think it’s the simple fact that our society has a binary problem. This isn’t exactly news. I’m biracial and bisexual, so I’ve lived through this continuous problem of “rounding.” Example: I’m half-Chinese and half-Irish, but I don’t really pass as white, so people often round me up to simply “Asian.” On the other hand, my sister, who can pass as white, often gets rounded up to white instead. Let’s say I have a boyfriend: on sight, people would round me up to straight. Let’s say I have a girlfriend: people would round me up to lesbian.
The problem of being in the middle of a spectrum rather than out at the ends is a curious one. I think we’ve largely reached a point in our society where being gay or lesbian makes sense to the general public. In contrast, for people whose identities exist in this sort of liminal space—e.g.: pan, bi, trans, non-binary, gray-ace, and demi people—others start to view our self-definition as murky or undefined.
This perception needs to change. Liminal identities are fully-formed and whole, not mix-and-match grab bags of other identities tossed together. As someone both Chinese and Irish, I joke about being “Chirish,” but in all seriousness, it feels more accurate than “half-Chinese, half-Irish.” I don’t feel cut down the middle. The experience of being mixed-race is itself unique. Similarly, the experience of being bisexual is itself unique: bisexuality is not straightness with a couple of alterations chucked in; nor is it gayness with a few straight-person decorations on top. It’s its own thing. It is more, as they say, than the sum of its parts.
Rounding, as I see it, comes from the larger problem of defaulting. The phrase “default to white” describes a pervasive reading habit in which many readers assume characters are white when their race isn’t textually listed. Unfortunately, defaulting isn’t confined to fiction. If, for instance, someone meets a white-passing, masculine-presenting genderqueer person, they may very well assume, “white dude!” This comes down to a problem of history. We can’t know what’s hiding in other people’s heads. We don’t know their pasts; we don’t know their struggles; we don’t know their identities. In this way, fiction affords us a wonderful opportunity. Unlike with strangers on the street, readers can—in just a few pages!—peel back characters’ outside layers and get a full portrait of history. We can meet and understand characters who live in the interstices between majorities. No rounding required.
Identity politics can get kind of tangled, but the central focus seems to be on respecting people exactly as they are, with no exceptions. The first step to that is getting it all right. Pure factual accuracy. This begins with an internal mandate to challenge assumptions: Not to assume that people in hetero relationships are themselves heterosexual, or that a guy who likes another guy is gay. Not to assume race, creed, or gender identity. Not to assume that someone is neurotypical or fully abled just because they have no outward sign of disability. On the most basic and fundamental level, our square-one mission (should we choose to accept it) is to challenge the assumption that other people can be defaulted into any particular mold. There is no “default person.” The spectrum of human identity is too full for us to ignore all that happens in the middle.
**This post orignally appeared at Diversity in YA and has been brought to you thanks to our partner, Cindy Pon!
Riley Redgate is the author of Seven Ways We Lie, a contemporary YA novel with seven narrators, one for each of the seven deadly sins, out March 8th from Abrams/Amulet. Riley loves horror movies, heavy rain, and the Atonement soundtrack. She often feels, when writing author bios, as if she is writing some sort of weirdly formal Tinder profile. You can follow her on Tumblr at http://batmansymbol.tumblr.com and on Twitter @RileyRedgate.
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association's Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, will be published by Month9Books in September 2015. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website atwww.cindypon.com.