Narrative archaeology: transgender fantasy characters
When I started looking for transgender characters in fiction, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, I had a faint idea of what I was going to find because, needless to say, these two genres don’t compare on equal terms.
- fantasy in the modern sense of the term is a significantly younger literary genre than science fiction: it was born in 1905 with The gods of Pegāna; all the antecedents are allegorical treatises, like Gulliver (Swift, 1726) or political-pedagogical ones, like Pinocchio (Collodi, 1881), Dorothy (Baum, 1900), Alice (Carrol, 1865), Peter Pan (Barrie, 1902). Sci-fi was born in 1818 with Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, novel), continued with The Last Man (Mary Shelley, 1826, novel) and on with scientific romances: Journey to Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne was published in 1864; Erewhon by Samuel Butler in 1872, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells in 1895… and we are talking about decades full of publications, a similar context for fantasy will only come from 1930s.
- is in the DNA of science fiction, as a narrative of the possible, a reflection on contemporaneity, while fantasy is traditionally escapist literature and fabulously conservative (but there are some exceptions: I’m thinking about Philip Pullmann’s trilogy His Dark Materials, 1995–2000, or the China Mièville Bas-Lag books, 2000–2004, both incredible works).
The transgender theme defines an otherness with respect to a “norm”, it is inherently “problematic” without placing itself in a binary evil-good logic (even if in the Frank Miller graphic novel, 300, the Persians, villains, are effeminate and monstrous, while the Spartans, heroes, are machos… two forms of gayness in comparison, according to someones).
On the other hand, one of the clichés of fantasy is exactly the unlikely hero (here is the distinction between heroic fantasy and high fantasy, isn’t?), the outcast and the “different” hero (from Conan the Cimmerian (The phoenix on the sword, R.E. Howard, 1932, short story) to Geralt of Rivia in The Last Wish (1993, novel), so I could have hoped for for a bunch of books.
I could have.
The protagonist of Starless, (Jacqueline Carey, 2018, novel), Khai, discovers that despite she was born genetically female, was raised as a male. Khai’s sexual and gender explorations are well integrated into the prophecy based plot (yawn).
In The Red Threads of Fortune (JY Neon Yang, 2017, novel) we can see applied a well established idea in sci-fi field: no one is assigned a gender at birth, and one may decide at any point later in life (or never) to take on a particular gender and, if desired, related physical characteristics.
In When the Moon Was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore, 2016, novel) one of the protagonists is an Italian-Pakistani trans boy who loves Miel (the other one, a girl from whose wrist roses grow out): together they fight the Bonner sister, four beautiful girls rumored to be whitches. They fight is enriched/complicated by the path of self-acceptance of Sam. One of the rare books (The Annex is another) where the transition is not just a narrative device but, in some way, the engine of the tale.
Along the four-book series The Shadow (the first one is Wake of Vultures, Lila Bowen, 2015, novel) Nettie Lonesome follows a path of self acceptance and in Treason of Hawk (Lila Bowen, 2018) our hero is Rhett Hennessy and becomes a member of a posse (it’s a western fantasy, something like the Alvin Maker series (Orson Scott Card, 1987–2003, novels) that includes queer individuals and people with disabilities.
The transgender protagonist of Full Fathom Five (Max Gladstone, 2014, novel), Kai starts creating gods built to order and ends fighting a conspiracy.
Before? It seems the is the void, some “cross-dressing” (Mad Martigan in Willow, 1988, movie) presented as the best way to hide men whose masculinity could not be doubted anyway (a long tradition from Homer: in Iliad, Ulysses tries to avoid the war this way) and nothing more.
Five? I’m sure I’m wrong, please help: five works is just ridiculous.