Schrodinger’s Asexual Representation

Today is the first day of Ace Week — formerly known as Asexual Awareness Week — and this year’s theme is “Beyond Awareness”. What exactly this means, I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine it’s about going beyond “asexual people exist” and into having more interesting conversations about it. I thought, then, that I would talk a little about stories, representation, and ace characters, through the specific lens of The Butterfly Assassin and its protagonist, Isabel Ryans.

It may seem strange to talk at length about a book that doesn’t release for another seven months, but now seemed like a good time: because it’s Ace Week, because I’m about to start working on the sequel again, and because I wanted to respond to some of the reactions to book’s announcement.

When I announced The Butterfly Assassin, I mentioned that Isabel is asexual, and emphasised that the book had no romance: the most important relationship is an intense, ride-or-die friendship. All of this is true, but when I saw how people responded to the news that the protagonist was asexual, I began to wish I hadn’t mentioned it. Not because they were hostile: on the contrary, people were excited by this news, and several people told me they couldn’t wait for more ace rep. Somebody else, knowing the kind of thing I generally write, responded to my Instagram Story with, “So there’s all the queer rep, yes?!”

And that struck me with terror.

Why? Because Isabel’s asexuality is never explicitly labelled on the page. I felt immediately certain that those same people would read the book and then take to social media to call me out for claiming representation that isn’t there, or say it’s a cop-out, or subtweet about how it’s Problematic to say a book has ace rep if the only representation it has is the absence of romantic/sexual relationships, or, or, or…

I know that the Internet is impossible to please, and that even the most careful, thoughtful representation will always make somebody on Twitter angry. Writing as though social media is looking over your shoulder is an absolute mind-killer, because you will never be unproblematic enough to be “safe”. So I know that I shouldn’t worry too much about what hypothetical future readers will say if they decide they don’t like me. But I do worry, because I think there are a lot of valid concerns in criticisms like this — some of which I wanted to assuage today.

An open notebook reading "it feels a little like power, but it's not a game Isabel's ever been interested in playing" lies on top of a large, creased asexual pride flag. Beside it are two brown notebooks, on which the words "The Moth Trilogy" can just about be made out. One has a rainbow-coloured butterfly sticker on it. Above those are two kitchen knives.
This quote is possibly the closest Isabel comes to labelling her sexuality in this book.

In fairness to myself, what I actually said on Twitter was that the book had an “asexual protagonist (admittedly, she hasn’t figured that out yet)”, and in my blog post about the announcement, I mentioned that Isabel lacks the vocabulary to describe herself in those terms. But I suspect that by publicly labelling my protagonist in this way, I created an expectation that the word would be used, and therefore, inevitably, I’m going to disappoint some people.

Here’s the thing. Isabel is asexual. The question of whether she’s aromantic is a little more complicated; I see her as being somewhat like myself, in terms of very occasionally experiencing romantic attraction under particular circumstances. Some people might call this grey-aro, or demiromantic; I don’t use these terms for myself, preferring to yeet my sexuality under the far less complicated and gender-expansive term “queer”, so that’s partly why I’d hesitate to put any specific label on my character. Suffice to say that Isabel’s somewhere in the approximate vicinity of “ace/aro”.

(As this discussion makes clear, asexuality and aromanticism aren’t synonymous. For me, though, they’ve always blurred into each other, and I see Isabel’s experience as similar, so throughout this post, I’m using “asexual” as a loose catch-all term to encompass her general lack of interest in romantic and/or sexual relationships.)

In The Butterfly Assassin, there are a number of reasons why she doesn’t label herself in this way, and it has nothing to do with me trying to hedge my bets or because I don’t understand the value of seeing a term like that on the page. Believe me, I do. The first time I saw an asexual character in a book — Quicksilver, by RJ Anderson — I cried, because it was the first time I’d seen the word used anywhere other than Tumblr, and it made me feel seen.

So I understand the value of words and labels, even though on a personal level, I’ve moved away from trying to pin myself down with a specific term. I understand that people can be disappointed when a book doesn’t have the obvious, explicitly labelled representation that they were hoping for. I thought very hard about this, and the absence of the term in this book wasn’t a choice I made lightly.

One factor is that the book is set in a fictional closed city, which has been largely cut off from the outside world for the past century. While they have access to a small amount of external media, and smugglers bring in more, they aren’t engaging with the exact same cultural understandings or material that we, in our world, engage with. Queer communities within the city have developed their own terminology and ways of labelling themselves, which aren’t necessarily the same as our own — particularly with regard to identities that have only begun to be labelled more recently.

A challenge of the worldbuilding in this book, however, is that we only see what Isabel sees — and Isabel isn’t in those communities, nor is she one of the technologically-minded types breaking through the city firewalls to access the unfiltered internet. She’s a teenager with no friends, and absolutely no support network; she’s been deliberately prevented from forming those kinds of connections by the people who raised her. This means she largely isn’t aware that those communities even exist, let alone how they’re describing themselves.

The city itself isn’t as heteronormative or homophobic as many parts of our own world, so queer relationships often pass unremarked. In fiction, this is often called a “queernorm” world — a world where queerness doesn’t have to be explained or necessarily labelled, because there’s no assumption of straightness. It’s another reason why the city’s inhabitants don’t always use the same labels and terminology that those in the outside world do; they have different priorities, and different aspects of their identity which seem important on an everyday basis.

Priorities are big part of why this book doesn’t explore Isabel’s sexuality at any length: to put it quite simply, she has bigger problems. She’s in hiding, using a fake name, making poor life decisions, and — for a solid chunk of the book — facing what seems like certain imminent death. All her energy is going on staying alive, rather than worrying about romance and whether or not she’s interested in it. (Although the fact that it’s such a low priority for her at seventeen may be another clue that she’s ace… as a teen, I never could understand why people in movies would start making out during life-or-death situations.)

Finally, there’s the fact that Isabel just… hasn’t figured that stuff out yet. It’s the first time in her life she’s even had a friend her own age; opportunities for figuring out where her romantic/sexual interests lie have been few and far between. I mean, I had a normal upbringing, went to school, and had access to all the usual pop culture, and I still didn’t figure out I wasn’t straight until a similar age; it took even longer before I started finding specific words that fitted. I’ve never related to the “born this way” or “always knew” narratives that are so dominant, and Isabel, who’s been through a lot of trauma and hasn’t had the opportunity to explore her feelings, has even more reason to be a late bloomer in terms of figuring things out.

And I think that’s okay. More than okay, I think that’s important. For every person who “always knew” they were gay or bi or trans, there’s someone who hit their early 20s and went, “Wait, this isn’t right,” or started transitioning at 40 or got all the way into retirement before they found a word that made them feel understood. We need stories about the late bloomers, the people who had to untangle their sexuality from trauma, the people who repressed their feelings and the people who just never had them, the people who didn’t think it mattered until they met a particular person, and everyone else who didn’t understand themselves until much later in life.

Isabel doesn’t understand herself. I know her better than she does. I know her better because The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, so I’ve seen the progress she’ll make as she begins to process what she’s been through and figure out where she stands in the world. I know that she’ll eventually feel safe enough to start figuring that stuff out, and talking about it to people she trusts. (I know that eventually there will be people she trusts.)

But right now, in book one? There are passing references to her lack of interest, but they’re just that: passing references. Not in-depth conversations or explicit labels. The primary way her asexuality manifests in this book is that there are two relationships which could have been romantic/sexual, and aren’t. One is the “shared trauma” type of relationship — two survivors of the same crappy situation — and the other is the “first kindness type” — i.e. the same person who has ever been nice to Isabel. I’ve seen novels develop both of those types of pairings into romantic ones, and I decided I had no interest in doing so.

So I didn’t.

And that’s it: that’s the asexual murder book. It’s the fact that it never even occurs to Isabel to think about people in those terms. She thinks she’s too focused on survival, the same way I thought I was just really great at the whole “no sex before marriage” thing my evangelical upbringing encouraged. Eventually she, like me, will figure out that there’s more to it than that — but right now, it’s the absence of those thoughts that provides the key to understanding her sexuality.

But that absence means something. That absence is what I was looking for as a teenager. More than a label, more than a word, what I needed was to see a life, a path, a way through adulthood that didn’t assume I would eventually settle down into a relationship. I wanted to know that that was allowed. I wanted reassurance that friendship wasn’t something we grow out of. I wanted stories that didn’t revolve around a type of relationship I wasn’t interested in.

Beyond awareness, to me, means going past “asexual people exist”, going past coming out stories (though there is always space for these, and we always need them), and into the realm of possibilities for the future. It means telling stories that give us space to exist, without pressure to explain our lack of interest. It’s amatonormativity — the positioning of normative romantic/sexual relationships as central and essential to people’s lives, without which we’re incomplete or broken or failures — that puts pressure on us to label ourselves in the first place; I want stories without that.

I wanted to write a book that says: friendship can be every bit as intense and devastating as romance. I wanted to write a book where romance never crosses the protagonist’s mind. And I wanted to write a book where I didn’t necessarily have to explain that with concrete terminology. After all, friendship can be important to everyone, regardless of their sexuality, and even if people want a romantic relationship at some point, that doesn’t mean they’re looking for one at all times. There’s space in everyone’s lives for a narrative outside of romance, one that focuses on all the other types of interpersonal relationships we navigate daily.

(I recently realised that, quite unintentionally, I’d created a story where Isabel’s singleness is entirely unremarkable. Almost all of the secondary characters in this book are single, barring Isabel’s parents; one character references a past relationship, but otherwise, there are basically no couples. Not because they’re all ace — far from it! But because it was so irrelevant to the story I was telling, it simply never came up. More than a queernorm world, perhaps what The Butterfly Assassin offers is a single-norm world…)

That doesn’t mean that Isabel’s asexuality isn’t canon, or that it’s a “word of God” situation, only confirmed outside the book itself. As I said above, The Butterfly Assassin isn’t a standalone, and Isabel won’t always be a terrified, traumatised teenager with a very limited sense of self. In the sequel, we’ll get the chance to explore these aspects of her character more, partly through conversation with another character, who is also ace. (And no, the term still isn’t used, for the worldbuilding reasons outlined above, but their orientations are unambiguously discussed.)

This second ace character is very important to me, because Isabel arguably falls into the “emotionless asexual” (or at least, “emotionally repressed to the point of not actually realising she has feelings”) trope. I didn’t want to imply that her asexuality was related to that aspect of her personality, or that it’s solely a result of what she’s been through. It’s not. The other ace character is a much more functional person in general, and one of the most loving and emotionally open characters in the whole thing; he just happens to also be ace/aro. It was important to me that this was the case. There’s also an aro character who isn’t asexual, and more queer rep in general.

And in book three, if we get book three (the deal so far was for two books), Isabel has the opportunity to encounter more queer people who actually do use labels, and to start figuring out how her identity fits into that web. That book’s at a very early stage right now, so I can’t tell you whether she settles on a specific term. But I promise you it’s something I’ve thought about, and I can see her having a far more concrete understanding of her own identity by the time her story eventually comes to a close.

So no, my asexual murder book doesn’t use the word “asexual”. But it’s still the book that I wanted as an asexual teenager: a book that centred friendship, that didn’t shove two characters into a relationship just because they interacted a few times, and finally, a book that didn’t interrupt life-or-death moments with kissing.

And while Isabel’s sexuality may be ambiguous in book one, I hope that as the trilogy progress, it becomes more and more apparent that she’s ace, even if she never reaches the point of using that specific word. Not because the words aren’t important. But because sometimes people haven’t found their label yet, and that doesn’t mean they’re any less asexual.

If that’s not the ace rep you were hoping for, then I’m sorry. And I hope that one day I’ll write a book with the kind of setting where the characters can use these labels unambiguously, because like I said, I know how important it is to see yourself in a book, when it feels like most of the world doesn’t think you exist. But I still wrote this story for people like us, and I hope you’ll give it a chance anyway.

🖤🤍💜

The Butterfly Assassin will be published on 26th May 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it now.

5 comments

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    Absence is hard to categorize as active or passive—at least in a book that is not written as a polemic first and fiction second. For example, Hercule Poirot does not discuss politics; is that because he is apolitical or because he is a character from detective story that don’t turn on politics rather than a modernist tale?

    It is easy to say that for a character to “represent” a group they must not only be consistent with being a member of it but actively be put in situations where that membership controls their behaviour (for example, an asexual person must avoid a honey trap by not experiencing attraction or an apolitical person must be caught off guard by a sudden shift in policing because they didn’t pay attention) but that is a somewhat reductive approach: real people are hugely complex and so almost always don’t display any sign of the greater part of themselves in any situation (it’s strongly enshrined enough that many people have “work personas” and their employment culture actively marks certain areas as off-limits).

    So, there is very definitely a space for ace representation that is “stories where there isn’t a mandatory romantic sub-thread” as well as stories where a character is flamboyantly uninterested.

    • Finn Longman says:

      Absolutely. It’s hard when something is defined by its absence to show it on the page without belabouring the point, but that absence can still be important. When there are so few books around that explicitly talk about asexuality (though there are way more now than there were in 2014!), I still feel a certain pressure to provide that recognition and representation more prominently, but I shouldn’t need to do that by shoehorning in elements that aren’t actually part of the story I’m telling. Isabel’s asexuality is neither the most interesting thing about her nor her highest priority, so inevitably it’s going to be less than obvious unless you’re looking for it. But the absence of romantic subplots (still so ubiquitous in YA) is much easier to see.

  2. Mélusine says:

    “More than a label, more than a word, what I needed was to see a life, a path, a way through adulthood that didn’t assume I would eventually settle down into a relationship.” This part especially made me pause and think in ways I can’t really articulate. I’m not ace but a lesbian, and I realized it “late” (at 23), and I’ve been thinking about representation and growing up and thinking back to my teenage self a lot lately – what I needed and didn’t get, and how to reconciliate myself with that sort of loss as an adult. I don’t really have any articulate thoughts on that, but thank you, you’re bringing water to my mill as we say in French. 🙂

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