Tag: aromanticism

Being Yourself On Purpose

It’s Ace Week! It’s also French publication day for The Butterfly Assassin, which is super appropriate, because Isabel is asexual, so this is her week.

I’ve talked before about asexual “representation” in The Butterfly Assassin, and how there arguably… isn’t any — not if you define representation as explicit labels and discussion of a certain identity. This is a balance I’ve grappled with over the past year, wondering how much to emphasise that element of the book. The fact of the matter is, this is a book that’s all murder, no sex — an upper YA book where the most important, intense relationship is a platonic one, and where opportunities for that relationship to develop into a romantic or sexual relationship are deliberately avoided in favour of taking the narrative another path — and that, much more than labels, is what matters to me, and it’s what my younger self needed.

That doesn’t mean labels aren’t important, though, nor that Isabel’s identity will never be discussed in more depth in the series. I’m a little over halfway through the editing process for the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin at the moment, having finished structural edits and with line edits coming rapidly over the horizon, and one of the things I love about this book is how it gives Isabel more space to explore who she is.

Some spoilers for book one ahead, so if you haven’t read it yet, might I suggest you go grab a copy before venturing further? (Unless you like spoilers, in which case, you do you!)

In The Butterfly Assassin, a major source of tension and conflict is the fact that Isabel has been poisoned. As such, she spends the majority of the book trying hard not to die, focused solely on survival. It is not a narrative that gives her a lot of time to start worrying about whether or not she feels sexual attraction, because it would be deeply unnecessary to her current situation.

Now. I have been told, and have gradually come to observe from my own reading, that this in itself is a pretty ace perspective. Turns out, allosexual people and characters do start thinking about sexual attraction at deeply inconvenient moments, up to and including while Trying Not To Die. Who knew! And I know from personal experience that identity crises do tend to assert themselves at times when you should really be focusing on other things; that’s why I had a gender crisis in the middle of my A-Levels, because I no longer had the brainspace to repress it.

But the fact of the matter is that Isabel is very, very good at repressing things, and not particularly prone to navel-gazing, and as such, it would never occur to her to try and put a label on an absence of certain feelings. She’s so convinced she’s messed up by her childhood that if she recognised a difference in her own behaviour compared to anyone else’s, she’d simply chalk it up to that and move on.

I think this is a common story. I think there are a lot of people whose experiences resonate with ace experiences, and might plausibly fall under that umbrella, but they will never seek out that label. They don’t need to. It isn’t relevant. Some might think the rest of the world is exaggerating about their sexual attraction; others are aware that they’re different, but have chalked it up to some other factor in their life or upbringing or current experiences.

And that’s fine. Nobody is ever obliged to use any label for anything. I find my own sexuality increasingly slippery and hard to pin down, particularly as my sense of gender shifts and matures. I still find it resonates most strongly with ace experiences, but I’m also very aware that asexuality is a spectrum, and that not everybody who sees themselves as belonging to that spectrum is in the No Attraction Ever category, nor is attraction synonymous with interest in sex.

I’m also increasingly aware that romantic attraction can be a slippery thing. To my mind, there is no objective, concrete, identifiable difference between romantic and platonic affection in terms of its expression and what it looks like to an outside observer. The difference is in what it means to the people in that relationship, and how they label it, and what it means to them. One person’s queerplatonic relationship might look identical from the outside to another person’s romantic one, but that doesn’t mean it is identical, if that’s not how those people experience it.

This … dislocation, almost, or at least separation of Objective External Perception from Concrete Labels And Terminology has been freeing. Imagine the possibilities if I say, “It doesn’t matter what you think this relationship is, to me it’s X, and that’s what matters.” Some people kiss their friends. Some people don’t kiss their romantic partners. Why are we assuming that to qualify as one thing or another, certain behaviours or actions have to be exhibited?

I’ve got sidetracked. I’m sorry. At one point I had an actual purpose in writing this post, but at this point it’s purely, “Finn muses on what asexuality and aromanticism mean to them,” and that is probably not why you’re here. Back to TBA…

Except it’s not really a sidetrack. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about seeing reader reactions to The Butterfly Assassin is how several people have said they don’t normally read books without romance, but that they didn’t feel anything was missing from mine. One person even said that it felt like the friendship hit the same beats as a romantic relationship would have done, in terms of how it grows and develops. That’s deliberate. I’d read a lot of books growing up where the cold, “emotionless” character was “humanised” by sexual attraction and romantic feelings, and I wanted to explore the possibility of platonic affection serving the same purpose, breaking through their shell. There are a lot of ways to love people; why was only one being valued?

It makes me think a lot about what people are looking for when they prioritise reading books with strong romantic elements. I know what I’m looking for when I pick up a romance novel; I’m rarely looking for it when I pick up a fantasy or sci-fi book. But maybe what others are seeking, when they say they want strong romance subplots, is actually just human connection, intensity of feeling, those moments when a character realises their feelings for another have broken through their walls and rules and intentions and changed how they respond to having plot happen to them. And I see no reason why you can’t get those feelings from an intense platonic friendship.

(NB: An ace protagonist doesn’t, of course, preclude the possibility of romance, because asexuality and aromanticism are not synonymous. However, as Isabel is ace/aro and those aspects of her identity are significantly entwined, in this specific case, there’s a lot of overlap, and I will sometimes use one as shorthand for another. This is not intended to erase the identities of those who are ace and not aro, or aro and not ace, but I know that my terminology sometimes blurs in ways that could seem careless, hence the clarification.)

Book two once again has one of those intense friendships at the heart of it, but there’s a difference, because it’s no longer the only friendship that Isabel has, and there is a lot more space for Isabel to start reflecting more on her place in the world around her and how she relates to the people she’s surrounded with. In book one, she’s isolated, with very few friends of her own age, almost all of whom she’s lying to. She’s only just escaped from a traumatic upbringing that, in particular, has left her isolated for the past eighteen months, forbidden to see anyone except her parents and one other person. This is not the case in the sequel.

Without wanting to give too much away before the title and cover and blurb are revealed, one of the things I like about book two is that although the narrative voice is still very much in Isabel’s head — it’s in third person, but it’s such a close third person it sometimes feels closer than first, to me — the scope of the story is broader. It’s like the camera has stepped back, and we get to see more of the city, because Isabel is living in it, engaging with it, experiencing it.

Book two gives us an Isabel who has friends, or at least colleagues — a day job, putting her in a position of interacting daily with civilians who challenge her sense of self and open her mind to new possibilities. And, yes, they are mostly queer. Again, this wasn’t a deliberate choice, or a box-ticking exercise (“okay, we need a character who uses they/them pronouns, and a character who’s gay, and a character who’s bi…”). I have very few straight cis friends, and when I come to write, I write characters who feel real to me, who look like the world I see around me. So, inevitably, they end up mostly being queer, because that’s the world I live in.

In a queernorm environment, there’s no need for anyone to come out, because nobody is ever assumed to be straight. But still, in many queernorm settings, there’s an expectation that characters will be interested in someone, even if options are less circumscribed. I didn’t want to fall into that trap, either, but I wanted to see Isabel realising for the first time that her experiences might not be Default Setting. Not to alienate her, or make her feel different, but to allow her to be herself more consciously.

One of the ways I’ve done this — and I’m excited for you to read this part — is to show Isabel picking up some of the terrible romance novels we encountered in book one, when Emma was collecting them. I hope that nobody takes this detail as me mocking Romance as a genre. I have been very public about the fact that queer historical romance novels got me through the pandemic, and if I poke fun at cliché Mills & Boon style romance novels here, it’s done with love. I had a lot of fun coming up with awful in-universe premises (an assassin who falls for their target! two assassins from rival guilds who have a meet-cute over a dead body!) and I knew, as soon as they showed up in book one, that I would want to come back to them properly.

(Psst. If anyone wants to write one of these as fanfic, it would delight me. Or, you know, if anyone wants to pay me to write one of these, I will do so with glee and gusto. Just know that it would be intentionally Extremely Cringe.)

So. Isabel reads terrible in-universe romance novels. (Her friends and colleagues are quick to assure her that good romance novels do exist; she continues to stubbornly read the terrible ones, because Emma collected them, so they mean something.) And she doesn’t get it. And she turns to her flatmate, to her friends, and is like, “Explain this to me.”

The thing I love about this is that it gives us space for Isabel to examine her feelings in a hypothetical situation — but it also lets her explore them with others who, unexpectedly, share some of those feelings. One of the characters she talks to is aro, but bisexual. One of them is ace/aro. Neither of them use labels, because they don’t exist within the setting in the same way that they do in our world, but they’re able to give Isabel perspectives that help her understand herself.

That is representation, for me. Not necessarily specific labels that map directly onto real-world experiences, although these can be helpful for some, life-saving for others. But to have those perspectives, those new ways of seeing the world that allow you to understand your place in a continuum and then explore it deliberately and consciously… I think that’s what really matters, when it comes down to it. And whether readers relate to Isabel’s place in that continuum or not, I think seeing it is part of what allows us all to be ourselves more consciously.

In fact, some of the characters that were the most helpful to me in figuring out I was trans were not trans characters. It was those who made me say, Oh, that’s NOT me, that really helped solidify things. Experiences that I couldn’t relate to that made me prod and poke for the reasons why. But it was also characters in settings where they didn’t have words for things, because I wasn’t ready to put labels on things, and I wasn’t willing to commit to a label. There’s something gentler about seeing yourself reflected without necessarily acknowledging first what that would mean.

In the end, what is any coming out process, what is any exploration of gender or sexuality, but learning who we are and starting to do it on purpose?

Book two shows Isabel learning a lot more about who she is, and doing some of it on purpose — even the parts she doesn’t necessarily like about herself. And her purposeful self is ace/aro, and feels platonic affection so intensely that it can break through all her walls and repression, because there’s never been only one kind of love.

I’m very much looking forward to sharing that with you.

In the meantime, you can grab The Butterfly Assassin now. In English or in French. Which is super exciting to me, even though my French is appalling.

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.