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 | 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.