Last October I attended Sirens, a conference about women in fantasy (and science fiction). Each day a different author talked to us. V.E. Schwab talked about her literary ancestry and it was something that resonated for me, so I thought I would share those who have influenced me.
Going back to my wee days, the stories I remember first have to be Beverly Cleary – especially her wild child, Ramona. I haven’t read any Ramona books in decades, but my memory of her is a very unruly child. No, not just child, GIRL. She was willful. She was smart. She was brave. From Ramona the Brave to Ramona the Pest, she was always moving forward and tackling what she wanted.
Next came Judy Blume – from Starring Sally J Friedman as Herself to Then Again Maybe I Won’t to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – all the messy girls who were smart and worried because they weren’t cool, they didn’t fit in, they were different in some way that set them apart, and they made ME feel less alone.
In between Cleary and Blume was Madeleine L’Engle, whose Time books shattered my worldview in the best possible way. I am BEYOND thrilled and can’t wait to see what Ava Duvernay is going to do with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle was the first science fiction I read and it blew my little mind. It was so different from the fairy tales. Not to mention Meg, a smart, capable girl. I would read and re-read her books every few years, each time finding something I had forgotten or not noticed in the previous reading. As an adult, what really stands out is how she writes about family, loving families – parents and children who all love each other.
In my teens I read a lot of science fiction, but mostly what I remember is Anne McCaffrey’s dragon riders. She, like L’Engle, turned fantasy into something that felt rooted in reality (the distinction between fantasy and science fiction is for another time).
I don’t remember reading any queer characters until I got to Rubyfruit Jungle. So thank you, Rita Mae Brown, for sharing your happy gay ladies. It wasn’t until I discovered Nicola Griffith that I found queer women whose sexuality wasn’t driving the plot. (Aside: I discovered it on the shelf at my public library. THANK YOU PUBLIC LIBRARIES.) I have written about writing queer characters, so I’m not going to go into it here. Needless to say, Nicola turned my world upside down, much like L’Engle had two decades earlier. The idea that a queer character could BE without having their sexuality commented on in the text was revolutionary.
Where does that bring us? To me, currently flailing around and thwacking things as I try to wrap my mind around this system called story. I hold these girls and women tightly in my memory, and they help one another break down structures that no longer serve. They work to build more inclusive spaces. They go on adventures. They fall in love, they fall out of love, they try and fall down and get back up, or they fall down and ask for help, and they get help or they don’t get the help they think they need but they learn something. They fail. They hurt people. They learn and grow or they don’t. They are flawed like we are all flawed. We try and fail. We make mistakes. We learn and apologize (hopefully).
I don’t know how to write the stories I want to write, YET. I am learning and trying and stumbling around. In the meantime, I keep these characters and authors in my back pocket and in my heart. I am descended from them and hope to honor them as best I can.