When I first began writing my adult fantasy debut, Silk Fire, I attended a workshop on worldbuilding taught by award-winning author N. K. Jemisin. She encouraged fantasy authors to build worlds from the bottom up, explore how differences in geology, weather, and biology could all affect the culture of a fictional society. For example, in her trilogy The Broken Earth, humans living in a world prone to earthquakes have organs that detect seismic tremors.
I knew I wanted to write about an unlikely hero—a queer male sex worker—in a world where sexuality was deeply linked to the economics of power. So my first decision was that, in this world, women can’t get pregnant or stay pregnant unless they choose it. As I considered the implications of this choice, and the magic system I was building—where strength is rooted in magic, not muscle—it seemed natural to develop my world as a matriarchy. From its earliest days, women would work together to fill all necessary social roles. Across many cultures, men would be viewed as accessories, with little to contribute, requiring protection. This setting created a compelling internal conflict for my sex worker protagonist: who would he be, and how would he understand himself, in a world where a fundamental aspect of his identity was considered a liability and a weakness?
This question had deep personal meaning for me at the time. I was in the middle of my own gender transition, and I was painfully aware of how sexism colored even the smallest social interactions, from men rushing to hold doors open for people they perceive as female, to taking common courtesy as an invitation for sex. But my keenest realization was that American society tolerated a certain amount of gender nonconformity in women, if one didn’t push too far.
All my life, I was praised for being “not like other girls—” for excelling in the sciences, speaking up in conversations, pursuing a career. The “girl power” media of the 90s and 00s made it seem like the ideal, “empowered” woman was one who took on a masculine role. But when I announced my transition, I faced shame and ostracism. People would ask “can’t you just be a masculine woman?” as if I hadn’t tried that my whole life.
I came to realize the ideal “masculine” career woman, especially as portrayed in film and television written by cisgender men, still served the patriarchy. She never complained or expressed personal desire; she worked twice as much as her male counterparts to make up for their shortfallings. She encouraged real women to overextend themselves, assuming more duties both in the workplace and at home, providing men in their family more leisure and the men above them more wealth. American society allows women to act like men if it benefits men. Adopting masculinity out of personal desire is taboo—women aren’t supposed to want things for themselves.
This is the idea I wrote Silk Fire to explore: how a victim of sexism and its many linked traumas could go about untangling their personal identity from the gender roles they’ve been conditioned to uphold. The protagonist, Koré, views himself entirely through the lens of the gendered roles he occupies, judging himself harshly for his failure to simultaneously be a perfect son, lover, and worker. He then receives the power of one of his city’s sacred dragons, a magic that offers him incredible power—and places him in incredible danger. The magic manifests whenever he expresses his true self, which happens more and more frequently as he finds love, confronts past trauma, and fights for the future of his city. Yet being himself means relinquishing the certainties gender roles provide, the binary metrics by which he understands himself, and re-defining himself within a complex history of economics, violence, and intersecting identities.
In writing the story, I deliberately chose to focus on the male inhabitants of this world, and constructing, from the ground up, the systems used to control them. I was searching for my own place within an ideal masculinity that feels as simple and crushing as a hammer head, twisting and contorting it until I could open masculinity up and make room for my experiences. Here are men who fear sexual violence; here are men who love fashion; here are men drawn to male things and female things and everything in between. Here are men seeking agency by participating in an unfair system; here are men who reject the system entirely. The female characters have their own challenges, but none are rooted in their gender, and even the most empathetic don’t quite understand how the men they care about struggle. The male characters understand this, accommodate this, work to please the women in their lives—and widely accept this as normal. Sexism is not the focus of this story—it simply exists in this world, as it exists in ours.
To play with gender in speculative fiction is a useful act of imagination, one that helps us understand sexism at its roots, and lay the foundations of a world without it. Textbooks can contain theories and case studies, but fiction creates emotional possibility, a space to explore personal questions—what if this happened? How would it feel?—that lead into larger ones—why are some gender transgressions celebrated and some feared? What does this say about the purpose of gender as our society has constructed it? What does it mean to be a man, if not power? The answer is: whatever he can make it, when he chooses to define his own self.
Silk Fire by Zabé Ellor will be released on 5 July