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Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would Elizabeth Bear Do?

Spoilers for "Spacelift" follow, in case anybody cares.


A lot of the feedback I received for "Spacelift" seemed to indicate to me that I wasn't ending the story on a conclusive enough note. Tying into Algis Budrys's seven point structure (I finally found a link!), perhaps I wasn't sending enough validation at the end. Or maybe not. The feeling I got was that Jorge's big transformation, his big reveal, came too late, was treated too shortly, and was anticlimactic. He spends a scene arguing with Adriana about what he's going to do . . . when he finally does it there is no surprise for the reader, and no real closure.

I decided the ending would work better if Jorge transforms himself into Magda's double just a bit earlier--before his confrontation with Adriana. Have Adriana spying on him, and have her confront him when she catches him in the act. The climax of the story, I think, is their confrontation. If the transformation occurs after this, it's anticlimactic. Hopefully, with the transformation occurring before, it's not.

Moving this transformation up, though, has had a couple of challenging consequences.

One thing I struggled with is how to refer to this character after this point. Jorge or Magda? He or she? I came down on the side of calling the character Jorge, reasoning that the name is tied to the underlying identity. Besides, Jorge tells Adriana that "Jorge" is the name closest to his true Catarine name.

But what about pronouns? Is Jorge-as-Magda a he or a she? To all outward appearances, after the shift Jorge is a girl. My initial thought was to use female pronouns. (Besides, if I stick with the male name and the male pronouns, won't it be easy for readers to lose sight of the fact that a change has taken place at all?)

A couple of readers have suggested I base that decision on how Jorge sees hemself. I haven't really explored Catarine concepts of gender in the story and it would be well beyond the scope of a 5,000 word story to do so. In my mind, gender roles in a society of shape-shifters are a lot more fluid, but if my mind is as far as that goes, what difference does it make? (Does it make any practical difference that Dumbledore is gay? Is he really gay if readers are never shown or told this within the narrative? Does it matter what I say about Jorge's gender, unless I make it explicit?)

On a tangential note, I've always been drawn to art that is gender-bending. I think this is largely due to the fact that my own views of gender are out of step with the prevailing conventional wisdom. I would like to write a story that can be classified as gender-bending, but I'm walking a fine line here, with pitfalls I can see on either side. If Jorge takes Magda's form but keeps his name and keeps being, for all intents and purposes, male, then I'm not really exploring gender here, am I? He's basically in full-body drag, no? On the other hand, if I start referring to Jorge as a she because of the shape shift, then I'm basically implying that gender is a superficial thing. (We may refer to transsexual people who have had sex reassignment by their outward gender, but the outward change they go through reflects a much more profound internal process.) I believe that gender roles are societally constructed to a much greater degree than we realize, but that doesn't mean it follows that gender identity is a superficial thing, as easily changed as a set of clothes. It takes a lot of soul searching for a transgender person to identify as such, and the whole point of identifying as transgender is that gender goes beyond what is visible from the outside. I don't want to be unintentionally insensitive to this.

And then there's the much more practical issue of whether my use of pronouns throws the reader straight out of the story. Right now I have passages like this:

A crashing sound broke Jorge’s concentration, and she turned around to see the lavatory door flapping against the bulkhead. Inside the darkened stall, she could just make out Adriana, eyes wide, sliding against the wall until she was kneeling on the floor by the toilet.

Now, I don't see why this is such a big deal. I mean, the first time maybe, sure. But once you figure out that Jorge is being referred to as "she," need this continue to throw you? But my First Reader has indicated that it does. Maybe it comes down to how we view the world and how adaptable we are to things that confound our expectation (particularly when it comes to gender). Granted, I'm the writer and not the reader here, but I'm confident that something like the above would not bother me. I'm hoping that I could ease the transition by adding a sentence where the shift in pronouns was made explicit. Something like "Jorge looked down at his hands--her hands--and . . . "

So, my eight readers, what do you think?

1 comment:

Ray Wong said...

How interesting. The gender-bending aspect seems really cool. As for the ending... listen to your readers especially if they are saying the same things... but try not to overthink it either. As long as your ending is satisfying for the story, I think it's good...