During Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week, we want to use our space on GayYA to support AroSpec voices. Last year, we decided to host Awareness Week Series over the various LGBTQIA+ Awareness Weeks throughout the year. Though we hope to include everyone on the site at all times, we wanted to dedicate a concentrated space to people from a specific community to talk about how they’re represented in YA. The response from the community was phenomenal– we got to feature many fantastic and thought-provoking posts, and watched as the community fostered some nuanced discussions via our identity-centric Twit Chats. I personally remember feeling amazed as I read the posts that were sent in and scrolled through the Twit Chat hashtag. I realized I wasn’t alone in my feelings of discontent regarding the representation of my identities, or my hopes for what that representation could look like in the future. I got to meet and connect with so many smart and passionate people.
So of course, we had to do the Awareness Week Series again this year.
During the 2017 Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week, we’ll feature 3-5 posts from various AroSpec contributors over the course of the week, and dedicate a space to talk about AroSpec representation in YA.
Interested in contributing? Here are the details:
Posts should be between 800-2500 words, and center around AroSpec representation in YA. Your posts may go through light edits or a collaborative workshopping process.
Send your post as a Word or Google doc to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a 2-5 sentence bio about yourself including links to your blog, Twitter, website, or tumblr. Any links you’d like to use should be included as hyperlinks in the post. If you’d like to include a headshot or other images please attach them to the email– do not embed images in the document!
We do not offer monetary compensation of any sort, but are usually happy to help you out in other ways if we can. Just ask!
The deadline for submitting a post is February 1st. We’ll let you know by the 10th if we’ve selected your post for the series.
A Few Words of Advice:
We will consider any topic that is related to LGBTQIA+ YA, however please be aware that we try to avoid repeating similar takes on identical topics. The more specific you can be, the more likely we are to accept your submission. Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:
-Why AroSpec representation is important to you
-A character you read as AroSpec
-What kind of AroSpec representation you would like to see
-Other media (webcomics, podcasts, webseries) that feature AroSpec characters
-Microagressions toward AroSpec people in YA fiction
If you have a couple topics in mind, you can also email email@example.com with your ideas, and we can narrow it down to what post topic would work best.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. We look forward to reading your submissions!
Asexuality in YA Series: Day #6
Previous Posts: Even a Little is a Lot: Asexual Representation in YA by Lucy Mihajlich | Representing the Asexual Experience by Tabitha O’Connell | My Kind of Normal by Kelly Murashige | What’s So Important About Ace Representation? by Kazul Wolf | Navigating the In-Between: Demisexuality in YA Lit by Dill Werner | Introduction: Asexuality in YA Series by Vee S.
by Justine Mitchell
In 2012, age nineteen, I entered my first and only romantic relationship, with a boy I’d been friends with for a few years. I’d been interested in him for most of that time, too. I’d read about romantic love and sexual attraction and I thought I recognised the symptoms. I thought a relationship the correct logical step.
It might have been logical, but it wasn’t correct. As I—we—tried to make a relationship work, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. I felt anxious for what seemed to be no reason at all; my initial insomnia gave way to crawling fatigue. I felt tongue-tied. I felt crowded. I felt overcommitted and off-balance. I felt like I was curling myself into smaller and smaller shapes within my own skin. I felt like there was no room for me in my life. I found myself avoiding any form of intimacy in this relationship I had initiated.
I was troubled most of all because I didn’t know why I felt that way. Nothing I had ever read had prepared me for the situation I found myself in. Some nerves are normal, people told me. Try to relax. But weeks and then months passed and the nerves didn’t go away. If you don’t like him, dump him, people told me. Simple. But I did like him; my affection didn’t stop my unease. I couldn’t explain the problem, so no-one I talked to could help me find a solution. I stopped asking for advice.
This state of affairs lasted for three uncomfortable months.
It’s rare to come across a story or an idea at the exact moment that it can change your life, but it was towards the end of those three months that I got my copy of Sherwood Smith’s novel Banner of the Damned.
Banner of the Damned is the story of Emras, personal scribe and confidante of Princess Lasva, of Colend. When Lasva marries the prince of the warlike kingdom of Marloven Hesea, Emras accompanies her. But there are rumours that the Marlovens have been corrupted by Norsunder, an evil outside of time. Banner is also Emras’s defence testimony: she is on trial for her life. How and why she came to be writing it from a prison cell is not revealed until quite late in the book, by which time we understand that although she acted with good intentions, she’s not entirely innocent.
Banner of the Damned is a standalone novel, one of a dozen or so more-or-less loosely connected books by Smith set in the world of Sartorias-deles. Some are aimed at children and young adults, while others (including Banner) have been marketed to adults, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to teenagers and young adults. The stories range from swashbuckling adventure to romance to coming-of-age and epic fantasy. Smith has been writing stories set in this world for most of her life, and it shows in the rich worldbuilding.
One aspect of that worldbuilding is the refreshing practicality with which love, lust, sex and marriage are treated. In Banner and the Inda series, there are characters who treat sex as a gift and those who treat it as a game; characters who love lightly and those who love deeply; characters inclined towards monogamy and those inclined towards polygamy or polyamory; characters attracted to men, to women, or to both.
Or to neither.
Colend, Emras’s home, is a country of sophistication, art and beauty. The Colendi language has definitions and poetic descriptions for many shades of emotion. There are many Colendi words with the base elen, to love. Elas refers to those who have a preference for women; elan, a preference for men; elendre, a preference for both. The word elor refers to those who “prefer to remain asexual”. Although awkwardly phrased—’prefer’ suggests choice rather than characteristic—the concept is introduced in the second chapter of this 700-page doorstopper as a commonplace. Some people are simply not inclined toward sex. Everyone else accepts that and moves on.
Even so, for a long time, Emras assumes she’s simply slow to develop more than a “vague, academic” interest in sex. After all, it runs in the family: her mother and cousin were both late developers in that respect. Events and politics make Emras’s life busy enough that she basically forgets about sexuality and relationships for a while. She is finally confronted with the subject when a charged moment with her best friends Birdy and Anhar leads to an unspoken invitation to join them in bed—a situation that Emras flees, and which prompts a realization:
Love had bloomed—of a kind. I was very sure that I was in love with Birdy. Thinking about our conversations made me air-light, drenched me with color, and I liked to linger over his image in every detail, from his old tunic to his hair escaping from his braid in tufts, and his big ears, his beak of a nose. He was Birdy, but when he was close to me, his breath hot and shaky, his hands reaching, I wanted peace and air.
For the first time, I comprehended that love, at least for me, had nothing to do with sex. I was elor—I didn’t want him, or her, or anyone. Not in that way.
Emras’s sexuality is an important aspect of her character, but a relatively minor aspect of a book that spans about thirty-five years and an entire continent. It doesn’t define her in the same way that her scribal training does, or her loyalty to her friends, or her actions and their consequences. It is simply part of who she is. Cuddles and caresses make Emras sleepy, not ardent. Other people’s ardency makes her feel crowded and uncomfortable. She might love people, might even fall in love, but physical intimacy is not something she will ever want.
A few days after finishing Banner of the Damned I was doing the dishes and trying for the umpteenth time to explain to myself why my relationship felt wrong. I thought, I feel crowded. And with Emras and her story fresh in my mind, I finally had a framework in which to realise what feeling crowded actually meant.
I felt crowded by and uncomfortable with intimacy. Emras felt crowded by and uncomfortable with intimacy. Emras was elor, asexual. Maybe the reason my relationship wasn’t working was that I was asexual too.
It felt obvious. It felt right. It felt like the answer to a question I hadn’t known I was asking. I hadn’t known relief—joy—could be so devastating. I felt free.
I ended my relationship the next day. We parted on amicable terms, but have since lost touch. I regret the loss of that friendship, but I don’t regret the self-knowledge the entire episode bought me. I have been happy, the past four years. I have episodes of self-doubt or second-guessing or loneliness, but I’ve learned to listen to my instincts, and to not try to manufacture attraction where none exists.
We humans are a subjective species. We can’t ever experience someone else’s life, so we form our understanding of the world from what we experience, what we observe, and the stories we hear. Stories are important. Representation is important. As a child, I thought I was straight, because straightness was everywhere. As a teenager, I believed I was bisexual, because I’d come in contact with a broader range of possibilities and realised I felt the same sorts of affection regardless of gender. It wasn’t until I’d read Banner of the Damned that I realised I’m not inclined toward romantic or sexual attraction.
I had heard of asexuality before I read Banner of the Damned. I’d even read stories with asexual characters in secondary roles, such as Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead or Sherwood Smith’s earlier Inda series. But I’d never made the connection, because I’d never encountered a description of what it felt like from the inside. Nor have I read any story since (and yes, I have read Clariel) that comes so close to my own experience.
Banner of the Damned will always hold a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf because it gave me the story I needed to understand myself.
The author is a 23-year-old woman of New Zealand pākehā descent. She no practical interest in sex or romance, a great interest in history and an insatiable appetite for speculative fiction. Justine Mitchell is a pseudonym.
by Tabitha O’Connell
As an asexual reader, I love finding characters I can relate to—so few exist whose sexuality is similar to mine that it’s really special every time I encounter one. Sometimes, these characters have the word “asexual” explicitly applied to them in-text, and it’s always great to see my label used and normalized. However, what I most enjoy reading are narratives that convey what it’s like to be asexual—and using the word isn’t necessary for that to happen. In fact, some of the ace characters who have been the most meaningful to me are ones that aren’t actually labeled “asexual” in the text. And I don’t mind that, because when the experience of being asexual is described in a real, authentic way, I can recognize and relate to it, whether the character is called “asexual” or not.
What follows is a discussion of three YA books that represent the asexual experience, even though none of them uses the word “asexual”. Each character’s version of asexuality is different, proving that it’s possible to represent a diversity of ace experiences even if labels like “sex-repulsed”, “sex-indifferent”, or “aromantic” don’t exist in your setting.
Nadin of Lyssa Chiavari’s sci-fi novel Fourth World is a member of the heteronormative ruling class of her planet. Matched with her future husband by the government and destined to govern a citidome with him someday, she’s used to seeing marriage as a practical business arrangement, and while she’s glad that her chosen partner is also a good friend, she doesn’t feel any sexual interest in him. She also doesn’t realize that that’s unusual—until, that is, she sees sexual attraction on display during a rare excursion among the working class. She is immediately uncomfortable, and expects her companion, Isaak, to be the same:
“You mean that didn’t”—I paused, struggling to find the right word—“bother you?”
“No. Honestly, it’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve seen anyone act human.”
I glared at him. “How is that what makes someone human?”
“I dunno.” He shifted, looking down at his shoes. “Being happy. Being in love. No one in the underground seems to love each other.”
His words stung. “We all love each other,” I corrected him. “We live for each other. It’s the way of Iamos.”
“Yeah, but, I mean… it’s different with your partner,” Isaak said. “Isn’t it? I mean, don’t you and Ceilos…?”
He trailed off uncomfortably. I felt something twist inside me, an unfamiliar niggle of worry. “No.”
A common experience among real-life aces is not realizing for a long time that experiencing sexual attraction is the norm for most people. It’s easy to assume everyone else is like you, even if there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary; and if you lack such evidence (because you grew up with a family and peers who didn’t talk about sex, for instance), that makes it even easier. So when you discover that, actually, the majority of people feel something you don’t, it can be somewhat of a shock. Nadin’s feelings, and this conversation between her and Isaak, are a very genuine depiction of someone who’s ace but is only just starting to realize that.
Nadin is forced to confront her difference further when she brings up this incident to her partner, Ceilos, and he reveals that his feelings don’t match hers. When he kisses her, she feels only revulsion, and is left upset and confused:
I was shaking. I didn’t know what to say. It was like I was asleep again, having some kind of horrible nightmare.
He blinked a few times, his eyes coming back into focus. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?”
Why would I like that?! my mind screamed, but I couldn’t find my voice.
He pushed away from me, getting to his feet. “I’m sorry, Nadin,” he said, his voice impossibly small. “I thought… I thought you loved me, too.”
I jumped up after him. “I do love you!” I protested.
“Then why don’t you—” I flinched, and he lowered his volume. “Why don’t you want me?”
I had broken him. No, I had broken us. I could feel it as surely as the cold air around us, as the fading atmosphere outside the dome. Something was wrong with me, and it had ruined Ceilos and me forever.
The pain of having a partner not understand your asexuality and be hurt because they think you’re rejecting them is perfectly captured here. To Ceilos, sexuality is an expression of love and affection, but to Nadin, it’s traumatizing. The fact that Nadin lacks the words to articulate her feelings—that she can’t just explain “I’m asexual”—is part of what makes this scene so poignant and relatable. At this point, she’s realized she’s different, but she thinks her difference is a relationship-ruining flaw. So many aces have thought they were broken before they found the asexual community, because that’s what happens when everyone expects romance and sex to go hand-in-hand.
Fortunately, Isaak’s society does have the words to explain Nadin’s feelings, and while at the end of Fourth World she still doesn’t know that, the author has confirmed that she’ll find out later in the series. However, this first book captures her asexuality perfectly without needing to label it, and in fact, her lack of the word is an essential part of her experience—just as it is for so many real aces.
The fantasy novel Clariel by Garth Nix presents a character who is clearly identifiable as ace, but who has a very different experience from Nadin’s. Far from being repulsed by sex, Clariel tries it several times, curious; however, she finds herself indifferent, “not caring one way or another about repeating the act itself or the emotional dance that went with it.” She also lacks interest in romance, and wonders if she is “naturally a singleton.” Being different from the norm in this way doesn’t bother her; she just wants to be free to live her life the way she wants to. Other people have different ideas, though, including a friend with a crush on her:
Bel wanted more, obviously, but she did not. She liked his company, and he was a friend, as she judged things, proven by his actions. But she felt no passionate attraction, no giddy desire. She’d never felt that[…]
“I’m just not . . . not interested in men,” said Clariel.
“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.
“Or women either,” added Clariel.
But even after this very clear statement on where she stands, she’s still not sure if she’s gotten through to Bel. While Clariel is open and unapologetic about the way she is, she faces the frustration of not being believed when she tries to communicate her lack of romantic and sexual feelings to the people in her life. Even with the word “asexual” at their disposal, many real-life aces face this same difficulty. Knowing yourself, and being okay with the way you are, doesn’t mean other people will understand or accept you, which Clariel illustrates very poignantly. Even Clariel’s own father denies what she says about herself:
“I don’t want to be married. I’m like Aunt Lemmin. I am happiest by myself. I would like to live by myself.”
“Lemmin is a very good woman, and has been a good sister to me, but she is not a usual person, Clariel. Even when we were children she was not at all—”
“Father, I am not a usual person either! Can’t you see that?”
“You are just young,” said Harven. His smile flickered across his face for a moment. “I daresay you haven’t met the right young man. There are far more eligible young men here—”
“I don’t want a young man, eligible or otherwise!”
“You don’t know what you want!” snapped Harven.
I’ve ready many accounts of aces having conversations quite similar to this one with their parents or other older relatives. “You’re too young to really know” and “You just haven’t met the right person yet” are both common responses when aces come out. Try as she might, Clariel can’t make her parents understand that this isn’t something she’ll grow out of, but a central part of who she is. Too many real aces still go through this exact same thing.
Of these three characters, the one I personally relate to the most is Ennaline of RJ Astruc’s fantasy novella Cold Ennaline. Growing up in a very religious society, Ennaline is expected to marry a man someday; parents arrange their children’s marriages, and staying single is not presented as an option. This leaves Ennaline feeling alone:
How can I explain to him that I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for marriage? To anyone. The things I hear other girls talk about—their crushes, their desires—seem alien to me. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to experience the urges and impulses they seem to be suffering from every day.
As a homeschooled Christian teen, I got my information on what was sexually normal from church—and with Sunday school classes emphasizing sexual purity and “waiting for marriage”, I quickly learned that I was not normal. The books we read told us it would be hard to resist sexual temptation, but worth it when we got to enjoy sex with our future spouse—but I wasn’t interested in having sex with anyone, spouse or not. I didn’t know how to tell this to anyone, though, because no one ever told me it was possible to not experience sexual desire.
As with Nadin, lacking the words to describe her feelings—lacking the concept of asexuality—is an essential part of Ennaline’s story, just as it was a major part of mine. “You’re so weird,” a classmate tells Ennaline when she says she’s not romantically interested in either of her two close male friends; Ennaline tries to explain that she doesn’t have those feelings for anyone, but just gets called “weird” again. So she comes up with an excuse: “I’m too used to them. They’re like my brothers.” This is something that makes sense to her classmates, a reason they can accept. In the same way, I came up with alternative explanations when people asked why I didn’t want to get married. “I don’t want to be tied down” seemed a lot more understandable than “I don’t want to have sex”, and kept me safe from being thought strange or broken.
Eventually, Ennaline talks to the counselor at her school about what she refers to as her “coldness”. But because such things generally aren’t discussed in her society, this is hard for her to do:
“Forgive me, I’m still struggling to understand. You don’t feel any sexual desire for any boys?” [Mrs. Fane asks.]
“No,” I say, twitching at the terms she’s used, but glad we’ve finally found a common understanding. “I feel nothing. I feel… love, friendship, happiness, anger, all that stuff. But nothing… sexual.” It’s difficult to get that last word out. I don’t think I’ve ever said it aloud before.
Another barrier to my telling anyone about my lack of sexual interest was that sex wasn’t talked about openly in my family or at church, outside of those designated purity classes. I definitely got the sense that sex was secret and shameful, which left me uncomfortable with the idea of bringing it up in any way, even just to say that it wasn’t for me. Ennaline’s aloneness, her hesitancy and embarrassment about talking about her feelings, definitely reminds me of my younger self/are exactly what I went through as an ace teen.
Until I found the word “asexual” at 20, I felt completely alone, never having encountered anyone else, real or fictional, like me. This was a defining aspect of my experience of asexuality, and reading about characters going through similar things—not knowing how to explain their feelings, being misunderstood when they do try to explain, feeling like they’re the only one who feels this way—is so meaningful to me. Stories like these remind me that I’m not alone, and never was, and I’m sure they do the same for many others. As long as a book authentically represents the asexual experience, I think it does an important service to ace readers—whether it uses the word or not.
Tabitha O’Connell is an asexual feminist who loves animals, abandoned places, alliteration, old buildings, long walks, and long sentences. Visit her online at tjoconnell.wordpress.com.
Asexuality in YA Series: Day #3
Previous Posts: What’s So Important About Ace Representation? by Kazul Wolf | Navigating the In-Between: Demisexuality in YA Lit by Dill Werner | Introduction: Asexuality in YA Series by Vee S.
by Kelly Murashige
I thought there was something wrong with me. Some sort of genetic, chemical, or otherwise biological malfunction that made me so much different from every other girl in my grade. While my third grade classmates whispered about the boys they kissed in the girls’ bathroom stalls, I stayed silent. When my friend said she was in love, I didn’t know what to say. Even my best friends wondered why, by the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh grade, I had never fallen head over heels for a guy.
“Are you gay?” my parents asked me one day after sitting me down. “It’s okay if you are. We accept you no matter what.”
“I’m not,” I told them. “I just don’t have crushes.”
I don’t know if they believed me. I don’t know if I believed me, either. After all, it seemed like no one else was like me. All my favorite TV shows had at least a dozen different possible “pairings.” The movies lined up on my DVD shelf ended with a kiss in the rain. My favorite series in middle school, The Hunger Games, featured one of the most iconic love triangles in young adult literature. And yet, I found myself unable to gush about a boy the way everyone else could.
Even once I had my first crush, an innocent and unrequited one on a boy four years my senior, I never imagined us kissing. I couldn’t even picture us holding hands. All I wanted was to talk to him.
I thought, by eighteen, my love woes would be over. But when I kissed my first boyfriend, it was quick. We didn’t open our mouths. We didn’t even breathe. And that’s exactly the way I wanted it to be. When we kissed for the third time and he, well, reacted, I didn’t find myself pushing him farther. I didn’t put my hands around his neck or lightly scratch my fingernails against the material of his T-shirt. I didn’t even laugh or tease him.
No, I stepped away. I pretended I didn’t see it. I pretended it didn’t make my throat close so much that I couldn’t breathe. I excused myself, saying I had to get home, but the whole ride up the elevator to my apartment floor, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. About what was supposed to be such a natural thing but made me feel like bursting into tears.
Something was wrong with me. After years without crushes and a truly anxiety-inducing fear of anything past closed-lip kissing, it had to be the only choice: I wasn’t normal.
It took me days to finally confess to my best friend.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I texted her.
maybe ur asexual, she replied. And time seemed to stop.
I’d heard of the word before, of course. It’s impossible to get through high school without hearing it. But I’d always thought asexual meant no feelings of romance at all, something I eliminated during the summer where I fell for the older boy.
But I’ve had crushes, I told my best friend.
look it up.
I remember prying open my laptop, curiosity sending ripples down my spine. Could I finally have a reason for my abnormality?
Asexuality. I typed it into the search bar. And there, I found that asexuality doesn’t always mean a complete lack of romantic feelings. Asexuality, just like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and everything in between, has a spectrum. There are people who don’t feel attraction at all, and there are people like me: Though I like kisses and surprise gifts from boys, I don’t want anything more.
And that’s normal.
When I told my parents, they didn’t seem to understand.
“Those feelings will come in time,” they told me. “When you find the right person.”
I waited for my need for normalcy to take over, to reply with a meek, You’re probably right. But that time, I didn’t. I said, “No, it’s how I feel, and there’s no changing it.”
For once in my life, I accepted who I was. I accepted how I felt. It didn’t matter if I didn’t want to sleep with someone, no matter how much I loved him. That’s my kind of normal.
Only days after my realization, I came across an article about an upcoming YA release: Tash Heart Tolstoy. Written by Kathryn Ormsbee and featuring an asexual protagonist, it made my heart race. Here, finally, was a story about a girl like me. A girl who knew who she was, even if she was still coming to terms with it.
I only wish the book could’ve been released when I needed it most. When I sat quietly on the side as my classmates argued over which jock was “hotter.” When I read about Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne and wondered why I didn’t ever find myself craving physical contact.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret discovering my asexuality, no matter how twisted its path. I just hope someday, people like me will be able to pick up a book without romance, without making out in the hallways or in a car, and say, “There. See? That’s my kind of normal.”