Monday, November 24, 2008

Gender and more YA fiction (The Dream-Maker's Magic)

I've mentioned the childlit listserv before--this is about another book I read thanks to that list, and a thread on the list about kid's books addressing intersex themes, which the initial question-asker, Rebecca Rabinowitz (her blog is here) defined this way: "Just so we're clear, intersex isn't about being caught between genders or not feeling like one belongs to either gender. Those feelings can of course be felt by an intersex person, sometimes, but those feelings can be felt by non-intersex people too. In any case, those feelings are not the point. Nor is intersex an identity. Intersex isn't about self-identifying or about feelings; intersex is an umbrella term for situations in which the bunch of physical details that society uses to determine a person's sex don't all fall neatly into a category of either 'male' or 'female.'"

Sharon Shinn's The Dream-Maker's Magic was mentioned and sounded interesting, so I put it on hold at the library and read it thinking specifically about the ways that the book relates to trans/intersex identity (I think the two got conflated in the child_lit conversation, and the list expanded to include books in which a character did not present his or her gender clearly).

As I was reading it, I posted a facebook status update that said "Elissa is reading an awesome genderfuck young adult fantasy novel: The Dream-Maker's Magic, by Sharon Shinn." But in the end, I don't think it's really about genderfuck, which I might define as redefining and/or erasing gender norms.*

I'd say it's certainly a novel about gender identity and how we occupy our assigned and chosen gender roles, but really in the end it turns out to be about how the protagonist (Kellen, genetically female and girl-identified, raised by her mother as a boy, as her son) defines "girl." Born to a mother who insists she is a boy, who insists that she gave birth to a son, and forced/encouraged by her mother to "dress like a boy" and "act" like a boy, while those around her know "the truth" (I use too many quotes when talking about gender, but what else are you going to do?), we meet Kellen at nine, who has "come to appreciate the privileges that fell more to boys than to girls, and to take advantage of them when I had the opportunity." But at eleven, a new teacher in town insists that she attend school, and Kellen and her nascent gender identity run head-on into the world of school and what we learn at school. As a middle school teacher, I think that what we learn in school at Kellen's age is primarily about identity, both personal and social, in all the ways that identity can be social. As I see it, this often takes the form of learning how to pass (a.k.a. fit in, though they aren't completely synonyms), whatever that might mean to each child. Pass for cool, pass for normal, pass for more Chicana than white, pass for more white than Black, pass for mature, pass for stupid, pass for smart, pass for a slut, pass for a jock, pass for a druggie kid, pass for a good kid... Kellen doesn't pass for any of the things she might want/need to pass for, she just hangs there in between. Middle school is also about learning to punish the children who don't know how to pass. This is partly because fucking with them takes the attention off you, keeps you safe, but I think it is also because the ones who don't know how to pass, don't want to pass, don't need to pass are the ones who will fuck up/disjoint/complicate your society and your culture later on.

My favorite scene--besides the awesome scenes between Kellen and his best friend Gryffin (who I totally have a crush on)--is one in which Kellen, at thirteen, has an interesting conversation with one of his country's/culture's "Safe-Keepers," who travel the country hearing people's secrets and keeping them safe. Kellen meets the Safe-Keeper, Ayler, when Ayler comes to stay with Kellen and her mother in their home, an informal bed and breakfast. At this point Kellen is passing as a boy with anyone from outside her small town, and locals may use one pronoun or may use the other (I can't figure out if there are consistencies--I didn't examine this too closely). Kellen realizes who Ayler is:

"You're a Safe-Keeper," I said.

He nodded and swallowed. "Do you have any secrets you wish to confide?"

"No. But if I did, I could tell you and you would never repeat them to anyone, ever, and you would die and they would still be secrets."**

He considered this as he cut himself another piece of bread. "Sometimes secrets only need to be kept for a time," he said. "Sometimes my role is to protect them until they are strong enough to stand on their own."

"If I told you a secret, I would never want you to repeat it."

He nodded. "And some secrets will go with me to my grave."

"I"m a girl," I said, all in rush (sic). I was a little surprised to hear myself say the words. I had not bothered to give this information to any of our other guests, and there was no reason Ayler needed to know it.

"And is that a secret?" he asked gravely. [I love this question here, and Kellen's response.]

"Not exactly. Some people know it, some people don't. My mother wishes I was a boy." Before he could speak again, I added dryly, "That's not a secret, either."

"And what do you wish you were?" he asked.

I had never actually thought about it that way before. "I wish I was a girl who would do whatever she wanted," I said at last.

He swallowed another piece of bread. "And isn't that what you are?" [That's the best part, but Kellen's response and then Ayler's are useful too.]

I had never actually thought about that, either. "Maybe," I said, my voice uncertain. "But there are days I don't like who I have to be."

"There are days all of us don't like who we are," Ayler replied serenely. "And there are days we work to become people we like better."

Then they talk more about Ayler's job as a Safe-Keeper. I love their conversation--fantasy can be a pain in the ass (again, see footnote #**), but it can also be a way to create situations that allow for conversation about things that our culture just doesn't manage to discuss. (Kindred being maybe my all-time favorite example of this, though I have a very limited knowledge of the genre.)

The book gets less interesting as Kellen learns how to be a girl better and better, and though the book stays multidimensional and pretty great, and, thank god, never turns into a love story, there are implications of heteronormativity and living happily ever after.*** Gender norms certainly do not get erased. But a girl/boy does learn how to subvert them to her advantage, and Kellen surrounds herself with some good people who respond to her gender questions and her, uh, highly gendered life? in some great ways.

I don't have a conclusion. I like blogs for that. Thoughts are enough, conclusions are not necessarily necessary. Though it might make me lazy, and less likely to ever finish anything.

*Wikipedia says "Genderfuck refers to the self-conscious effort to 'fuck with' or play with traditional notions of gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation. It falls under the umbrella of the transgender spectrum." For what that's worth.
**Initially I read this as the kind of back-story and world-of-the-story-development that can sometimes make fantasy very tedious, but it turns out to be more important than that, if handled somewhat awkwardly.
***It's true, but I kind of just wanted to put "implications of heteronormativity" and "living happily ever after" in the same sentence in this post because it cracks me up in a really super-nerd-o way.

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