Today, we have author E.D.E. Bell talking to us about her novel, Spireseeker
, the review of which is coming soon. We’re talking about gender identity, both in the real world and her fantasy one,
Did anything specific make you want to present gender as a theme in your work?
Growing up with two engineers as parents, I wasn’t introduced to gender rules as a child. As a toddler, I was bald and wore overalls, and people thought I was a boy. Then I had two brothers, and we played together with the same set of toys. You get the idea. I played low brass in high school. I went to electrical engineering school surrounded by mostly men, and was one of four women out of sixty-four students in my graduate program. I ended up working with the military, while my husband became a stay-at-home dad. And so I’m fascinated by society’s strict definition of gender. Once you’re really tuned into it, you see rules, expectations – as well as artificial limitations – everywhere. It’s a subject I feel passionate about and wanted to explore in my writing.
What bugs you about gender and stereotypes in the real world world?
Where should I start? I don’t think we should program children with the pink and blue toy aisles in the store, but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s dismissing men as stupid, or women as emotional. It’s, “boys will be boys” and “girl power.” It’s being overly impressed by a woman repairing a car, or making fun of a man who likes to sew. It’s insulting phrases like, “Mr. Mom,” women labeling themselves as “strong,” or people dismissing a heterosexual transgender woman and a gay man as the same. And then if you question these things, then you get accused of denying science, which I’m not. I know men and women are different. I just don’t think people want to be pushed into artificial boundaries. If people are so into nature, then just let people act how they naturally are and stop forcing it. Society just won’t fall apart if some men like flowers.
Does Beryl, the main character, being an elf in a world identifying as female where the elves’ default setting is gender-neutral, affect the story? I initially wanted to write a story with a female lead, but then—and honestly I don’t remember the moment I came up with this—changed the elves to instead be genderless. At first, I worried the story may lose credibility with those seeking female protagonists in fantasy literature, especially female role models for their young daughters. What I found was that most people reading the story identify with Beryl as a female, whether she physically is or not. This made me wonder – if I were to reprint the story with Beryl called “he” how would that change the reader’s perception? I also wonder if I would have written Beryl differently under that premise.
Rikian is one of my favorite characters, and out of respect, I managed to avoid all gender pronouns while describing the elf, which was not an easy task. So, yes, I’ve heard, “You said he was genderless but instead he was just a flamboyant gay man.” What, quoting RuPaul is gay? But, yes, I did worry about this unintended effect after that chapter was written, but the people who read it told me not to change it. So I do think Rikian’s persona was a bit over-the-top but I also think that people (or elves) tend to exaggerate themselves when they grow tired of their perfectly reasonable choices making people so uncomfortable. Perhaps once treated a bit more normally, Rikian would put the raspberry robes away and tone down the flamboyance. Or not. Either that, or I fell victim to the same stereotypes I was trying to dismiss. But I still love the character, and that chapter (A Garden Walk) remains my favorite.
Do you regret challenging gender norms in Spireseeker?
No, not a bit. It makes some people uncomfortable, but if it makes others think (or even better, just enjoy the story), then it’s worth it to me. I am so interested by the many facets of gender in our culture, and plan to work a diverse cast of characters into all of my novels – both in terms of gender identity as well as issues of attraction. And all the blurring in between.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Yes. I’m sorry to my friends and family who are tired of the phrase, “genderless elves.” But not too sorry. And thanks, Nina, for the opportunity to talk with you. This has been great.
Thanks for the interview! I enjoyed Spireseeker, as you’ll see later.