R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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An asexual YA heroine? Why not? (crossposted from Dreamwidth)

NOTE: This post was written as part of the November 2012 Carnival of Aces, with the subject of Fiction. It contains some unavoidable plot and characterization SPOILERS for the novels mentioned, so click the cut-tag at your own risk. 

Hi. I'm R.J. Anderson, a Canadian-born, US-published, UK-bestselling author for children and teens whose sixth novel, Quicksilver, is coming out in early 2013. And if you're an asexual reader who loves YA fiction but wishes there were more characters like you, there's someone I'd like you to meet.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was special. Her hair flowed like honey and her eyes were blue as music. She grew up bright and beautiful, with deft fingers, a quick mind, and a charm that impressed everyone she met. Her parents adored her, her teachers praised her, and her schoolmates admired her many talents. Even the oddly shaped birthmark on her upper arm seemed like a sign of some great destiny.

This is not her story.

Unless you count the part where I killed her.
Her name is Tori Beaugrand and she's the maddeningly perfect-seeming girl described in that first paragraph, the girl that Alison, the narrator of Ultraviolet, believes herself to have murdered. But Alison is mistaken about that, and a lot of other assumptions she's made about Tori as well.
"When you came in, I’d just broken up with Brendan because he kept pressuring me to have sex with him. It wasn’t my fault he threw a tantrum like a freaking two-year-old—"
When I wrote Tori speaking those words in Ultraviolet, I wasn't consciously aware of their significance. I just knew that despite the cliches about pretty, popular girls, Tori had only ever dated one boy, and she hadn't enjoyed it much. It wasn't until I sat down to write Quicksilver, the sequel/companion novel where Tori gets to tell her own story in her own words, that I understood the reason why.
“Milo,” I said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve only ever told one other person. And when I do, I . . . I hope you’ll understand.” Passionately hoped, in fact. Because if he said any of the things Lara had said to me when I told her, it would be hard to forgive him for it.

“I know,” he said. “You’re gay, right?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not sexually attracted to anyone. At all. Ever.”
Before I started writing Tori's story, I had a vague notion about writing a conventional romance for her -- perhaps a story where she falls for the wrong guy only to realize that the right one was there by her side all along. But the more I thought about it, the more wrong and unnatural that idea seemed. I simply couldn't envision Tori being swept away on a tide of sexual attraction for anyone, and I couldn't imagine a single person who would make her feel that way. I went so far as to type out a preliminary scene where Tori meets a cute boy in an electronics store, but Tori flat-out refused to be charmed and the boy just came off as an arrogant, condescending jerk who wouldn't let her shop for the parts she needed. It was a disaster.

And yet I knew that Tori wasn't a cold or unloving person. I knew she was capable of passionate feeling and deep loyalty, and that she wouldn't hesitate to hug a friend in need or offer them a shoulder to cry on. I just couldn't imagine her in any kind of typical romantic or sexual relationship, and I wondered why… until the answer came to me one night as I was on the verge of sleep, and I leaped up and grabbed a pen to jot down the following note:

Once I'd written those words, I couldn't believe I hadn't figured it out sooner. It made sense of everything I'd ever known about Tori, including all the hints I'd dropped about her relationship with Brendan in Ultraviolet. And it also excited me from a creative standpoint, because I had never read a novel -- YA or otherwise -- with an asexual main character before.

Yet I didn't want the book to be about Tori's asexuality, in an After School Special kind of way. I had far too many resourceful, butt-kicking, stone-cold awesome things I wanted Tori to do in the book for that. Quicksilver, like Ultraviolet, is a psychological thriller with science fiction elements, and there's a lot of action and mystery and suspense going on as Tori fights to make an independent life for herself and escape the people who want to control her. Her being asexual adds a layer of complication and delicacy to her relationships with her parents and her best (male) friend, and explains some of the choices she makes and the struggles she has in getting others to understand her, but it's not the central element in the story.

On the other hand, I also didn't want to fall into the trap of treating asexuality in a careless, superficial way, or allowing the non-ace reader to mistake it for a symptom of Tori's abnormal biology (a key plot point of the story). So I spent a lot of time reading ace blogs and Tumblrs to find out what cliches and myths about asexuals to avoid and if possible, to directly address and counter them. I also made an effort to clarify that Tori's asexuality was not the result of trauma or scientific experimentation or her unusual background, by directly contrasting her with another character with a similar background and experiences who was demonstrably not asexual. As she observes in one of the book's flashback sequences:

And now he was kissing [her], and she was kissing him back. Not a gentle let-me-comfort-you kiss, either. It was the kind of kiss that looked like it was going to end up horizontal, and [he] didn’t seem to have any reservations about going there. So obviously my apathy toward sex wasn’t a [spoiler redacted] Thing, any more than it had been a Chip-in-the-Arm thing. It was just me.
Do I expect that Tori's portrayal is going to satisfy every asexual reader? I'd love it if that were true (I certainly tried my best), but I'm not banking on it. There's a broad range of perspectives on the aromantic - romantic asexual spectrum, and plenty of differences of opinion about what a healthy relationship between an asexual and a sexual person (and there is such a relationship in the story, though no sex is involved) should look like. But I was keeping in mind that most of my audience may not even have heard of asexuality and might have a hard time wrapping their minds around the idea, and I wanted to portray Tori and her non-sexual relationships in a way that would seem sympathetic and satisfying to the majority of readers. Baby steps, as they say.

To me the representation of asexual characters in books is important because it runs counter to modern society's obsession with sex as the be-all and end-all, the warped perception that sex somehow "completes" or "matures" a person (I always loathed this trope when it came up in fantasy novels I read as a kid) and that people who aren't interested in sex and don't make it a regular part of their lives are damaged in some way. With Quicksilver, I wanted to show how the satisfaction that Tori feels when working on a mechanical project, or spending quality time with a trusted friend, is every bit as fulfilling and meaningful to her as good sex is supposed to be for other people, or even more so. She isn't missing out on anything, and she's nobody's object of pity. If my non-asexual readers get that when they read Quicksilver, I'll have done what I set out to accomplish. And if an asexual person can read this book and feel a little less alone, or hand this book to a friend or family member to help them understand -- that would be the best reward that I as an author could wish for.

-- R.J. Anderson, November 2012

Quicksilver will be in bookstores mid-to-late February 2013 in North America, early May 2013 in the UK. You can see the cover, read the jacket copy and check out some advance reviews on GoodReads, or preorder the novel via Amazon (US / Can / UK), Chapters Indigo or Book Depository.
Tags: asexuality, carnival of aces, quicksilver, writing
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