by Erin Bow
I will be honest. I didn’t set out to write a book in which girls kiss each other.
As a novelist, I’m not much of a planner. Even the few things I do have planned don’t always work out, and that was certainly the case with my 2015 book, The Scorpion Rules. I came to it with some original equipment, some seeds from the writing gods: the character of my narrator, Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax, Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, came to me with her smarts and braids and stoicism fully formed. I also had the premise given to me: the idea that a future world would resort to keeping the peace by taking the children of the world’s leaders hostage, to be executed if their countries went to war. Even the Precepture, the abandoned monastery turned goat-farm-run-by-robots where the hostages are kept, came to me as a seed.
As I usually do, I planted those seeds and farted around while seeing what would grow.
Now, because I do read YA, and because I’m not stupid, I thought I knew what would grow. I mean, we all know the general shape of this, right? The hostage farm gets a new hostage. His name is Elian Palnik: he’s cute and rebellious and totally not down with stoicism. He makes Greta question whether this system of peace through terror is really something to participate in willingly. Greta and Elian even meet-cute when the robots electrocute him for acting out.
So: Proper girl meets bad boy, they fall in love and fight robots? Yeah, not so much.
I always knew they were not exactly going to fight robots – I was always interested in taking apart that idea of pointlessly evil systems and easy rebellions — but I did think they’d fall in love. I tried to make it happen on the page. I wasn’t entirely forcing it. There is something between Greta and Elian, a mutual desperation, an undeniable spark. And yet …. And then ….
Having cracked Greta open, seeing her begin to pay attention to all the things she’s always known about but had to keep herself numb to, I found that spark and desperation were not the things she wanted. I found her turning, with her newly opened heart, to her best friend – her female best friend – Xie.
I will be honest: I didn’t plan it. I will be honest: I was scared of it.
I will be honest: Greta is me.
Greta, I’ve always said, is as close to a self-portrait as I’d ever care to put on the page. Take her line “I had my sexuality filed under ‘further research is needed’.” That was me, young. I had too much hair and I studied Latin and I read science fiction and I waited for it all to make sense. I had gay friends – boys mostly — but it was the 80s, so most of them had scary coming out stories and some of them even died. They were very brave. They knew who they were. I didn’t know who I was, but I didn’t have their brave surety and so I was pretty clear that I wasn’t like them. I wasn’t a lesbian.
But I wasn’t “normal” either. Was I supposed to be attracted to people? Was it okay to fall for my best friend? How about to fall for my best friend AND Mister Spock, AND that one boy in the play I directed?
Greta is me.
Greta is the character I needed, then, but didn’t have. The smart, scholarly hero in a science fiction novel, who is female, and bisexual.
I wish I’d had her. I so wish.
I guess I need her even now, when I am forty-something and straight-married with a blazing girl crush on Hayley Atwell and a sexuality that is still in need of some further research. I often, unwilling and unwitting, end up writing the things we need.
Nowadays I meet my readers. The ones who reach out to me are often bisexual girls and non-binary folks. They are, to a person, amazing and brave. They have found words for things I needed words for, and they have made the world change so that we can use those words out loud.
Things have changed. I know that they aren’t perfect. I know queer kids end up on the streets, or worse. Fifty people died last week in an attack on LGBTQ+ people, people of color. On a much more personal note, I know that I don’t want some people in my own family to read this essay. I know that my first editorial letter on this book said “can’t they just be BFFs?” (NB: this was not from anyone at my ultimate publisher; they have been nothing but awesome. I lost that professional relationship, and it wasn’t the only one.) “Why do they have to be gay?” Things haven’t changed enough.
But we have words now. I didn’t do that. My readers, and the other young people, they did that. I am so grateful to them.
We have words now, and we have heroes now. For my part I have Greta and Xie.
And I’m very happy to share them.