Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week Series: Day 1 – Previous Posts: Introduction to Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week Series
My relationship with Young Adult fiction has been one of productive frustration. YA, specifically YA fantasy, is not only my favorite genre but actually the only genre of fiction that can ever hold my attention–I’ve always had trouble explaining why, but one reason is that in YA, the characters and their relationships are usually the most important element of the story.
But right there, in the explanation for why I like this genre best, is the source of frustration: relationships. Relationships don’t have to be romantic, but so many of them are! The focus on relationships that attracts me to the genre can become a focus on romantic relationships, which I find alienating and frustrating. I have to work hard to find books where romance is not the primary focus of the plot, and where the characters’ most important relationships aren’t with their romantic partners. Books about platonic friendships, about siblings and families, even books where romance and other kinds kinds of relationships are given equal ground, are difficult to find. This seems to be particularly the case in books with female protagonists. Often I find myself in a bookstore, picking up book after book, reading two sentences into the summary on the dust jacket, and finding that yet again, the most important thing in a girl’s life appears to be the mysterious boy who just moved to town, or committed a flashy act of terrorism against the dystopian government, or…
I read five or ten books each weekend, eating my way through each week’s new releases, Goodreads and Tumblr blogs’ recommendations, and my public library catalog, but even these ADHD-hyperfocus-fuelled binge reads lead to frustration more often than not. I can find other ways to identify with protagonists (this one is clearly depressed; that one is transgender–or, more frequently, I can choose to pretend that they are, without being contradicted in the text; this one cares about tikkun olam), but all too often I have to skip over scenes of romance even in books that I would otherwise consider favorites.
It would be easy to get discouraged. So many times, there doesn’t seem to be anything new on the shelves that won’t push me out of the story with its focus on a kind of relationship that I don’t understand, and don’t want to have to understand. Especially difficult are the books in which girls’ primary relationships are only with the boys they fall in love with. Distressingly often, a female protagonist won’t even have female friends at her side, and sometimes it seems the girl barely has any life at all outside of her boyfriend. People often ask how someone who’s not interested in romance deals with knowing they’ll be ‘alone’ all their life, but it seems to me that someone whose life revolves around a single relationship is lonelier than someone whose life is focused more widely on family and friends.
The difficulty of finding books that prioritize platonic and family relationships frustrates me both for my own sake and the for sake of other people: I compulsively share my books as well as rereading them for myself, and I feel much more comfortable sharing books that show a wide range of positive relationships rather than characters who appear exclusively dependent on a single person. When I’m sharing books with younger people, especially with girls, I want to be sure that those books encourage them, not necessarily to be independent, because I don’t think a person can or should be one hundred percent independent of others, but to depend on different people for different things.
For my own part, it’s easier for me to handle romance when characters are queer–although I don’t want a romantic relationship, all of my primary relationships are with people with similar genders (or similar perceived genders) to my own, and I want it to stay that way, so it’s easier to identify with a queer romance than a straight one, but there’s still a disconnect. I hope that as queer characters become more common in YA, there will be more books in which queer characters can have both romantic relationships, and also platonic friendships with other queer characters (my biggest dream is to read a book with more than one queer character in the same family–I would die for queer siblings). A thorough scouring of my library’s collection this year, with the help of various Tumblr recommendation lists, yielded not even a full handful of books in which queer characters’ platonic friendships with each other took center stage.
Despite all of this, I never have gotten discouraged. Frustration is a helpful focusing tool. If I know what I don’t like (and I certainly do), it’s easier to narrow down what I do like. And since the things I like are so difficult to find, the sense of excitement at finding them is always magnified. Finding myself in a book is a rare and powerful treasure.
For about ten years, since before I even realized I was aromantic, I’ve been collecting books, bit by bit, in which I have found myself. I now have a collection that covers three bookshelves, and I’m constantly looking for more, constantly frustrated but constantly moving forward. I even won a book collectors’ award in college for my YA fantasy collection, after explaining to the judges that one of the thematic elements that binds the books together is their interest in relationships other than the romantic. Of course, who knows if my criteria would satisfy another aromantic reader–it’s easier to say for certain that everything in my collection is asexual-friendly, because whether or not a book includes sex (mine don’t) is often clearer-cut than what relationships receive the greatest weight of importance in the plot.
Using the same narrowing-down process and the sense of euphoria that comes from finally stumbling on the rare book that I can identify with, I’ve also developed a clear view of the stories that I want to create myself. If I get a deep sense of rightness from reading about a character who is like me in one way or another, written by someone I don’t know, there must be people out there who will find themselves in the characters I write–aromantic, asexual, transgender, neuroatypical, Jewish, however many of those the character is, even if it’s all of them, there will always be someone who loves the character for that. I want my characters to be as diverse as possible, even in ways that don’t come from my personal experience, so that as many people as possible can find themselves in my work. The greatest thing in the world would be to share with someone else the sense of perfect satisfaction that comes from reading one book that understands you, even if it comes after a hundred that don’t.
My name is Sacha, and I’m a library science student in my early twenties. I describe myself as an anxious agender aro-ace, or just an alien changeling, for short. I have equally large collections of stuffed sheep and YA fantasy novels, and some day I hope to write YA of my own. I can be found on Tumblr @kuttithevangu.