by Daniela Cortés del Castillo
I’ve already covered the challenges I’ve faced at Loba Ediciones when trying to publish diversely. Now I’d like to speak briefly about what happens when I change my hat and become an editor working with an author.
Editing with intersectional feminism in mind is not easy. You carry around a lot of theoretical baggage that you need to use, but can also spoil the trip. I don’t want to become so pedagogical that I ruin a perfectly good story. Early on, I had to decide on a strategy, something that would allow me to keep my political vision* at the back of my mind while focusing on things such as plot, pacing and characterization. The strategy chosen for editing books is the same one I use to enjoy all cultural artifacts: to put on the shades of gender perspective. To me, that means to observe the world, both real and textual, with an understanding of the forces that influence our gender construction, and the structures of privilege that help sustain those forces. As an intersectional feminist, I believe those forces aren’t limited to patriarchy, but also to racism, classism and heteronormativity (among others).
Now, that is still too theoretical. Looking at things from a gender perspective is perhaps almost second nature to me now, but it’s not very translatable to material terms. Therefore, I also set some concrete rules:
- Wider stories. A protagonist’s story cannot be limited to their “diversity”. Malinda Lo once said that sexual orientation is part of an identity, not a plot twist, and this is something I keep in mind when choosing and editing the books that I publish. Just because a character is trans, for example, doesn’t mean that their whole story has to be about their transition. I want novels where trans teens can see themselves fighting off invasions of extraterrestrial dogs and saving the world. I won’t limit the adventures a protagonist can have to their sexual orientation; just like I wouldn’t make a book about a straight character all about their straightness. This also means that I won’t imbue gay characters with a halo of sanctity just because they are gay. I want them to be morally complex, like any interesting character would be. I want them to be heroes. I want them to be villains.
- This is the unbreakable rule, no exceptions. I need all the characters in a novel to have agency, or at least to have attained it by the end of the book. First of all, they must have agency to determine their own identity (including their sexual orientation and how they construct their gender) and agency to determine their own fate. There is nothing wrong with being a very feminine girl who likes Disney and pink t-shirts, just as there is nothing wrong with being a very feminine boy who likes Disney and pink t-shirts. What is important is that that identity is built in an autonomous manner. This goes not only for the main protagonist, but for all characters. I don’t want my heroine’s bff to be a stereotype. I want her to be written with as much care and thought as the protagonist.
- Offering alternatives. Now, thinking someone can construct their own identity and master their own fate may sound a bit naïve as we are all socialized beings and escaping that socialization is next to impossible, but the thing about fiction is that it gives us more leeway than reality. It’s a chance for readers to see someone be empowered, even if they can’t achieve that for themselves in real life just yet. For me, it is not enough to make visible the discourse and the forces that dominate us; as YA writers and editors we must offer alternatives of existence. Perhaps it’s not necessary to write a whole new utopian world, but by giving some agency to your protagonist by the end of the story you’ll be offering readers a bit of hope.
Calíope, agente de Nunca Jamás by J.L Flores is our first published novel. It’s a middle grade book about a society of faeries hiding in plain sight in Santiago. Cali is a nineteen-year-old halfling: half-troll and half human. She works as a freelance detective for the faeries’ government investigation agency. In the novel, Cali is asked to investigate the disappearance of human and faerie children and this takes her on a whole set of adventures.
I loved this manuscript. Cali is a great character: she’s funny, smart, kind and doesn’t really give a crap about the faeries and all their snobby rules. She’s happy being herself and does everything on her own terms. The author had been asked by another publisher to change Cali’s gender because “girls can’t be the protagonists of adventure books” and because “she acted too much like a boy”, but the writer (J.L Flores has published several children’s, YA and adult books) refused and brought the manuscript to us.
One of the first things that caught my attention was how flirty Calíope was. Even though no actual romance happened between her and other characters, there was palpable chemistry between Cali and her partner, Peter, and between Cali and her nemesis, Melusina. At first, I wasn’t going to say anything. I thought I might be reading too much into things. However, the chemistry became too obvious and I finally had to sit J.L. down and ask: “Hey… is Calíope bi?”.
He laughed. “I think she is.”
“Well… can we make it a little clearer?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Can I?”.
Now, if you read the section on “Publishing Diversity” you’ll know why he was asking. If no one wanted to publish Cali because she didn’t act like a proper girl, who would want to publish her if she was openly bisexual?
I would! Cali was exactly the type of protagonist we wanted for our first book. Someone totally unapologetical about herself and her sexuality. Now, even though we made Cali’s sexuality more obvious, she never says “I am bisexual”. This was a conscious decision. When a protagonist is straight, there is no need to point it out on page nine. We don’t see: “By the way,” John said as he picked up his toothbrush, “I’m straight.” The same goes for Cali. She likes girls. She likes boys. She has a bit of action with both. (No spoilers!) With the invisibility bisexual people face in the media, leaving out the label was a tricky decision. I don’t want people to think Cali is confused, or fluid, or experimenting. Calíope is bisexual, but the label of her sexual orientation is not pertinent to the plot. Perhaps it will be later on (and I do hope Cali shows up again on our editorial list), but in this particular book she is too busy saving the world to sit down and educate people about bisexuality.
The other tricky thing was deciding how much “action” Calíope would see. Now, she is nineteen, but this is a middle grade book. There aren’t any x-rated scenes, because they don’t belong in a book like this. (Also, see above re: Cali busy saving the world). Unexpectedly, this resulted in someone telling me he didn’t think Cali was bisexual because she didn’t do anything “censurable”, implying that: 1) the only way someone can be bisexual is if they are seen having sex and 2) same-sex sex is somehow “censurable”! Again, one more challenge faced in a conservative society.
Working on Cali’s sexuality throughout the editing process wasn’t only about whom she made out with. It also took a lot of work on a deeper level. Early on I realized that many of the challenges faced by Cali as a halfling are lived by bisexuals on a daily basis, and I decided to take the opportunity to use her mixed blood as a symbol for her sexuality. (Someone pointed out that it can also be seen as speaking to those of mixed-raced, and that may very well be true). Cali is rejected by the faeries (i.e. LGBTQIA community) for not being faery enough, yet she knows she will never fit among the humans. Throughout the novel she comes to understand that she isn’t “half faery” or “half human”, she is something else, something unique and powerful all on its own. I think every bisexual person wishes someone had told them that when they were 12. I know I do!
*I’m unapologetical about the political vision behind Loba Ediciones. Every publishing company has one. For instance, I know a Chilean YA publisher with strong ties to the Opus Dei. We’re just very straight-forward about ours.
Daniela Cortés del Castillo is a Bolivian journalist, writer and editor. She is the founder of Loba Ediciones, an MG and YA publishing company in Chile. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing, publishing and editing from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys reading, lindy hopping, and ranting about identity politics.