painted skins, ungendered words, agender heart

The latest issue of Lackington’s is online for all to read now! You read my story, “Kin, Painted”, right here and see Likhain’s illustration for it, and there are other great stories and art to see. Ebooks are still available of course, and if you enjoy it then consider a subscription!

This story originated on a postcard in 2009. I was having difficulty getting back into writing back then, and I found that writing flash fiction on postcards meant I couldn’t agonise over words and sentences, what to do next and then after that. So I wrote a lot of them. Most weren’t that great but they were words, characters, plot, concepts that I managed to get out without a Word document driving me to anxiety. Last year I remembered this particular one and wondered if it could make a decent short story. In the postcard the narrator’s arc ended differently. Unique in its own way, but ultimately I prefer the newer version!


the origins of Kin, Painted

We painted our bodies.
My brother: gold like the ideal sun, rich like all the treasures of the world melted onto his skin. He went to the emperor, to be a measure man. If anyone gave the emperor a gift less amazing than my brother’s skin, it was to be melted down.
My sister: silver like starlight, as bright and glossy like a still lake had dyed her. She went to the …

I wish I could remember to whom I sent the postcard, see if they remember it and see what they think of its descendant.

And now I’m going to talk about being agender and writing ungendered and the stories and poems that I’ve had published this winter.

I have always been confused about gender. Society and presentation and theory, sure, but that’s all outside your skin. What was inside? How does gender inside people work? How does gender inside me work? Spoilers: it doesn’t. Earlier this year I had a series of epiphanic thoughts and was able to push through the “I don’t know I don’t know” that had always stopped me from progressing past “gender wh?” in the past. I mulled over it for a while, and it’s the only thing concerning gender inside my skin that’s made sense to me: I’m agender. Non gendered, rather than neutrois or androgynous. Gender is just not a thing that I have.

Yep, I’m a triple A. Aromantic, asexual, agender. My orientations and identity all default to “nope”. For the record, she/her pronouns are still fine, and I’m femme. UPDATE: I now use ou/ou or them/they pronouns.

(It’s a bit weird being in the The Best of Luna Station Quarterly anthology, now identifying as agender and with an appreciation of why I’ve never really liked the term “woman” being applied to me!)

Now, everything I’ve had published this winter I wrote before I worked out being agender. Yet, they all have ungendered protagonists. In “Kin, Painted”, Singing Her Body Oceanic” and Skin Ashore it’s the narrator, and in “stone it’s the narrator’s friend. If you asked me what gender any of those characters are, I would have to shrug. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t decide.

It’s something I used to do a lot in first-person POV stories. Usually the narrator’s gender was inconsequential since I didn’t have to worry about pronouns cluttering up and complicating sentences. And it makes sense, looking back with my Yep Agender cap on now, that I would think like that, but I started moving away from that when I realised that, no matter how much I might not gender my characters, other people would. (I once experienced someone gendering an ungendered POV character because they considered that “reclining” was intrinsically a feminine action. How do you anticipate that? How do you counteract that?) Many people seem to hate not having a gender for a character. I don’t know why? To visualise them better? To know whether they can relate to the character? To feel more comfortable? Because that’s just how their brains work?

And I suppose it’s odd that I would care about someone caring more about a character than I did? But I did care. It bothered me. So I started making efforts to remember to gender my characters, to stop being lazy and to think about representation.

The first version of “Tanith’s Sky” had an ungendered, unnamed narrator. Which was fine—the emphasis was on Tanith, after all. Fine until, when I started editing it, I realised it wasn’t fine. The story wasn’t about Tanith; it was about Tanith and the narrator and the narrator and Tanith. So I edited it all in. Ash, genderfluid, performatively genderqueer. Just as consequential as being a mathematician, as grieving, as healing, as not quite knowing what to think about the unidentifiable queerplatonic relationship they had with Tanith.

I went back to those ungendered ways, though. Four separate times recently, for this post’s purposes. I don’t know if I noticed for the poems? It’s natural, to me, after all, and they’re short and focused on other matters.

In “Kin, Painted”, however, it was a deliberate choice. You could say the narrator starts off as a blank canvas in more ways than one (sorry (⌐■_■) not sorry). There’s a variety of gender identities in the narrator’s family and community, of which only one character’s is given any importance beyond simply existing, but the narrator expresses none. They’re not agender, though they could be agender, just as they could be they, ey, he, she or another pronoun.

I’d be interested to see if anyone comes away from the story with any notions of the narrator’s gender? Maybe I’ve used some particular words that gender them, or my gender (or perceived gender) is too strong an influence.

One thought on “painted skins, ungendered words, agender heart

  1. Pingback: Transcendent is here! | penny stirling's numbathyal zone

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