I have a new poem out at Strange Horizons! “Penelope’s body, looming” (podcast link) is about weaving and binding, and loneliness and courage in the closet. I wrote it when I was deciding whether or not to get top surgery.
2017, huh? Okay, so. At the beginning of the year I quit my job because workplace conditions had repeatedly deteriorated to the point where my mental health was in a tailspin and dragging my physical health down with it. With no relief in workplace conditions and workload in sight, unable to reliably fill out job applications because my free time was occupied with being stressed out from this week’s workload and being stressed out thinking about next week’s workload, feeling constantly miserable and drifting towards… the bad end of depression… I quit. Luckily I had enough savings to weather several months of unemployment, and now I have a new job which I very much like and my co-workers are lovely and supportive and my manager isn’t toxic and I am not being overworked and underpaid! It’s nice and strange and good for me.
I’ve been trying to work on improving my mental and physical health this year. Reclaiming it, I suppose. De-stressing from that awful job, unlearning the unhealthy habits I formed trying to cope with the stress, forming better betters. It’s been going okay. It’s difficult sometimes, when you have mental illnesses and physical conditions that feed on each other to make you feel like shit, to work out what healthy is, what you can actually aim for, what you can actually achieve. When I look back on how I was this time last year versus now, though, I can see the difference in my life. I can see how far I’ve come, how much of me I’ve rediscovered. I still have ways to go—reading and writing is still very difficult, mental energy-wise—but I’m buoyed with my progress so far. …I think I say that every couple years and then I have a downslide so we’ll see what Terrible Stressful Things next year throws at me.
I’ve continued to delight in photography this year. I’ve had two weekend road trips down south. I’ve tried to see more of my friends. I’ve done 50% of my Pokemon blackwork sampler and I’ve made some embroidery pieces I’m really proud of, like this rainbow lorikeets once.
I sold a story I’ve been editing for what feels like forever, it was on its fifth or sixth revision and I’d actually trunked it. That is “Walking the Wall of Papered Peaces” and it’s going to appear in Capricious in 2018. It is a story I don’t think I would write now—about the insecurities between an asexual clockmaker and her non-asexual romantic partner—but I’ll go into that when it’s published.
And I also actually wrote a story this year, and sold it too: “Red, From the Heartwood” will be appearing in Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up To No Good in 2018 or 2019. “Red…” features a dryad who works at Bunnings, her two partners, a light smattering of body horror and lots of apple desserts. There is a queerplatonic relationship between two arospec enbies, and a romantic relationship involving a queer woman. Given my dislike of when non-aro people write non-human aro characters and when non-NB people write non-human NB characters I think I will have some things to talk about when it comes time to talk about this story! I still can’t really believe that I wrote a whole short story. The last one I finished was “Kin, Painted” in early 2015. Since then I’ve had trouble just writing a single scene. But when I saw the theme and Octavia Cade’s name attached I was instantly inspired with the core idea (ha ha… apple pun). It was still a struggle to write and edit it inside three months, even though I was unemployed and it was only 5,000 words, but I did it and it was a huge accomplishment for me, and then even more amazingly Octavia accepted it! I can’t wait to share two new arospec characters with everyone, to talk about this story and to see what other stories are in the anthology.
Unfortunately I haven’t written much since “Red…” but I’ve been settling into my new job and routines and dealing with, uh, well let’s talk about that now. Last year I started binding occasionally, on the weekends sometimes with close friends. I started researching top surgery, not sure if I wanted it or not—not sure if I could even access top surgery here as a non-binary person not taking testosterone and not transitioning in other ways to masculinity. Binding made me happy, but sometimes I was indifferent to my breasts or mildly liked them rather than hating them, so I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get top surgery and, if I did want to get surgery, would I still want to get top surgery if I had to fly interstate or overseas to get it. But then I put that all on hold when I decided to quit my job. Now it’s a year later, I’m employed again, my health is better than it was to boot, and I’ve started researching and thinking about top surgery again. If I like the surgeon I’ve booked a consultation with then I can get it done at home, and if not then I can go interstate. While I’m not 100% decided yet—hopefully the consultation will give me the answers I need to finally, fully, make that decision—I feel clearer in my feelings, though if I need to go over to Melbourne or Sydney I’ll have to consider whether the added expense and difficulty on top of all the other expenses and difficulties will still be worth it. I don’t mind if, after all of this, I decide I don’t want top surgery. But if that happens, I want to decide this because I want to keep my breasts, not because I’m too intimidated by the logistical difficulties, the pain and the potential awkwardness.
Here’s a flash prosetry piece of mine which appeared in Verse Kraken in 2014! The formatting in this inspired me to do “stone”, my twine poem.
“She is, there—amongst the Mango Trees—a Flytrap Garden”
by Penny Stirling
Strange Horizon’s Queer Planet special (a month of queer-focused fiction, poetry and non-fiction) has begun, and one of this week’s items is my column, “Did You Mean ‘A Romantic’?” which talks about growing up as an aromantic in a amatonormative world, highlighting some of the media which has scarred me and some of the reactions and realisations I’ve gotten throughout life.
This is my first non-fiction sale! And the title is from before “aromantic” became a term Google knew and that was the standard search correction suggestion.
And I did an author spotlight over at Pack of Aces where I talk about my published acearo characters and how much better my writing life is since I discovered the terminology that described me:
When I was a teen I tried to write characters who were like me. This was before I’d heard of asexuality or aromanticism. All of the characters were broken, like I obviously was, and they were all eventually fixed like I was told I would be. (Perhaps “they were all broken, and they were all eventually broken in” is better phrasing?) They should have been happy endings: the character admitted they were in love, sex was usually implied, hooray, the character is fixed. But they were all off. Stockholm syndrome was common, overbearing and wearing down of wills was common, power imbalance was common. The characters did not choose to fall in love, they didn’t really fall in love; they were pulled into love and sex and held there with a grip that only at a glance looked like a romantic holding of hands. Messed. Up. (But that’s what I thought I saw in books and films and TV, that’s what I thought was the only path for me. There were many stories which horrified me, which people insisted were romantic. He loved her, so it was all right. She ends up saying she loves him, so it was forgiven.)
There was a month dedicated to these author spotlight interviews with various acespec creators and you can check them all out here!
Today’s the last day of Aromantic Spectrum Awareness Week and I thought I’d write about some of the everyday ways that being aromantic has affected me throughout my life.
- I thought there was something wrong with me when I was a teen. I didn’t find people attractive like my friends did (or if I did it was in very specific “I like this hairstyle combined with this waistcoat” aesthetic ways), I wasn’t getting crushes like they were, I didn’t understand why they were talking about boyfriends and the like, I thought the idea of falling in love was suffocating, I thought the idea of meeting someone who would completely change my mind and make me fall in love was terrifying. But I knew of no one else like me. I knew I was broken, I was wrong.
- I knew I wasn’t gay. At 16 or 17 I discovered the word “queer” and, although I didn’t use it, it was a lifeboat to me. There was a word which meant “not normal, but okay”. If someone could be not straight, if someone could be not gay, someone could be queer? Could… someone be like me? Be like me and be not broken, be not inhuman?
- When I was younger I had many anxieties relating to my friendships, that they were all fake friendships, that everyone was pretending to like me for some weird joke. (One of my friends deciding, over a term break, that we were no longer friends and that I was someone whose existence she should ignore for no reason I ever knew of… didn’t help this.) I don’t know how related this was to the “once you get a significant other and grow up you stop having friends” trope I had seen so much of in fiction and life. I don’t have this anxiety anymore! I even have friends who’re in romantic relationships and -gasp- we still hang out together anyway.
- I don’t know whether the zucchini situation will ever not be long-distance. It’s okay if it stays long-distance, it’s okay if the distance shortens, and it’s okay if drifts back down the queerplatonic-platonic spectrum.
- I don’t think I’m currently healthy enough for a local QPR, to be honest. When work is busy and my sleep is poor (and it often is) I have very few spoons left for the evenings and weekends and, while my QPP is important, sometimes I unfortunately don’t have much energy for emailing.
- I’m not out at work. Most of my co-workers don’t talk about their home lives and aren’t nosy so I’ve never felt a need to. I refer to my zucchini as “girlfriend”, which is not a lie but contains some omissions.
- I’m not out to my family. My parents never once asked me if I was dating or why I wasn’t dating so it… never came up. My extended family have on occasion asked my father (“no, but she’s happy”) but never asked me. No one in my family knows I have a zucchini.
- I think they might have assumed I was dating a male friend who I saw regularly, or mentioned him to my extended family in such a way that they assumed, because I got an invite to a cousin’s wedding which was Penny+MaleFriend instead of a PlusOne. *stares into middle distance*
- When I was younger both of my parents separately sat me down for the If You Find Someone You Need To Know That You’re Totally Compatible Before You Marry Or Buy A House Together And I Mean Totally Compatible In The Bedroom talk and I nearly mentioned it then but I wasn’t confident enough and also my parents had just mentioned sex and I need to change the topic of conversation because ewwwww.
- I never dated, which I’m really glad of. I had intense anxiety about the idea of someone finding me attractive or wanting to date me, whenever I suspected someone did I would panic, ask friends “IS THIS??” and hope they never acted because I didn’t know what I’d do. All I knew was I didn’t want that, I didn’t want them, I didn’t want anyone and I didn’t know how to communicate that. I was asked out a few times, every time I panicked and said no.
- I was an asshole in my late teens/early 20s, and I also did nothing about my personal appearance, and I think part of that was to do with cultivating a more unattractive self so that fewer people would be interested in me. (As I became more confident about being aromantic and matured in other ways, I grew out of needing to be like that.)
- (But I was also very bad at noticing flirting.)
- I really like Unresolved Sexual Tension in TV shows because I’m bad at noticing it, so to me it looks like the main leads are good mates and it’s non-romantic and it’s happy and safe. Xena and Gabrielle? Scully and Mulder? Carter and O’Neill? Bones and Booth? Beckett and Castle? NON-ROMANTIC ROLE MODELS FOR THE MATURING AROMANTIC. Until it inevitably becomes Resolved Sexual Tension and then I feel stupid and betrayed.
- I’ve been told I’m obviously a lesbian because I’m not interested in men; and then called homophobic when I said I’m also not interested in women.
- I’ve been told I’m immature because I don’t want a romantic partner and children.
- I’ve been convinced that a friend understood that I was aroace, having seen them use the words and be supportive, and then later found out they thought I was romantically interested in someone.
- I’ve been told “If you weren’t aromantic we’d probably be dating”.
- I’ve had friends and known people who didn’t think I was allowed to hate amatonormativity. They would get me to watch romantic films and then get upset that I deigned to dislike such endings like “She gave a rousing speech about how being an independent modern American woman means she doesn’t have to have a partner and then immediately establishes that it’s okay, she’s normal, here’s the guy she wants to date” or “She fell in love and grew apart from all of her friends” or “She had a argument with her boyfriend about how they nothing in common anymore and an argument with her best friend and broke up with both of them, but in the end she only apologises and makes up with the boyfriend”. Their desire for amatonormativity to grant them a romantic partner and a happy ever after was more important than any feelings I had about being erased for my entire life.
- I feel very grateful to have a group of friends who have no problems if I go “I think this is a good TV show but the succubus powers make me uncomfortable and I don’t want to watch this”.
- One of the reasons I stopped reading YA when I was a teen was the constant “teen girl just like you learns to fall in love”. The “teen boy or man who’s unlike you learned to fall in love” that was in most of the adult SFF I then started reading was easier to deal with.
- Romcoms and the romance genre bore me and erase me and alienate me and I can’t do that.
- I’ve had friendship break-ups that broke my heart.
- When I was younger I tried to work out what made a romantic relationship so special as if there were some logical maths behind it. I’ve read a lot of “what’s the difference between…” blog posts and now I try to think about it more on an individual level rather than a universal constant.
- I find writing romantic relationships interesting and frustrating.
- I find it really difficult to imagine a sff world where aromanticism is completely ordinary. Asexuality, sure. Other queerness, sure. Aromanticism and aromantic relationships as unremarkable, though, is something I struggle with.
- Sometimes I get really depressed and anxious about how uncertain my life is going to be without a partner to live with and support me.
- I was a bridesmaid earlier this month and the whole experience—having seen the whole of their relationship, having found out about the engagement, the wedding preparation, the ceremony and the reception themselves—made me both sad that I’ll never have such an experience, and also really glad that I’ll never have such an experience.
- I get depressed and anxious about how I’m too ill to write most of the time, and there’s no one I can rely on to write about the ace and aro (and agender!) characters I need to write about.
- I don’t like touching people. Brief hugs from friends are okay (quick tangent: wow, if you’re someone who gets offended when someone doesn’t want to hug you or get massaged or be touched by you without warning then you are gross and you can fuck right off) and the zucchini is the only one I can tolerate holding my hands (and even then there’s plenty of occasions where I’ve had to go “nooo not right now”).
- I’ve had sex dreams. Every time they’ve made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and like my subconscious has violated me.
- I’ve had squishes, though the last one was five or eight years ago. The ones that I remember the clearest were both on writers who I did become friends with. I never told them 😮
- I wonder how much my aromanticism and asexuality has influenced being agender, and vice versa. A large part of Being A Woman, to me, was Being A Woman Who Will Be Attractive To Guys, Being A Woman To Learn How To Look After A House For Your Family, Being A Woman To Get A Man And Kids, which I always rejected with varying degrees of understanding why I did so. Additionally there’s the idea of, well, if I don’t have to worry about which gender I’m attracted to, why even gender? There’s no answers there, of course. I am aromantic, and I am asexual, and I am agender, and that’s who I am.
I’ve started using neutral pronouns: ou (ou/ou/ous/ous/ouself) or they (they/them/their/theirs/themself)! It took me a while to find some that felt right for me and I was discouraged seeing how certain cis people treated and misused neutral pronouns, but if I let people like that hurting people like me stop me doing things then I’d probably still be assuming I was an incredibly broken alloromantic woman so fuck that shit, I’m doing this thing.
Speaking of discouraging matters: 2015 frustrated. In 2014 I made gains, and then I lost them again. Frequent illnesses impacted on my chronic health issues and most of the time it was all I could do to tread water. The last story I completed was in January, the last poem February. It’s incredibly frustrating; previously I had finally started feeling good about my relationship with writing and then it was back to exhaustion and depression and wondering if I’ll ever get that part of my life back. It’s impacted upon other areas of my life, and then there’s rebound impacts and, to be honest, I’m surprised I even managed to survive working full-time. I have hopes for 2016, hopes for better health, for life improvement and getting back to things like writing and seeing friends more often and going on road trips and drawing and playing games and reading more and all that jazz, things that I enjoy and that improve my life. But I had those hopes for 2015 and I saw how that went so maybe I should be hoping just to continue treading water, to not slip under. Or to not slip under as much. Hah…
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I did manage to work full-time, I had a really great week in Melbourne with a good friend, saw my zucchini and made plans to travel in 2016, finally figured out the agender thing, got asked to be a bridesmaid, made some embroidered gifts which people loved, supported friends, had good times, made people laugh, tried new foods, became enraptured with new cartoons and shared them with friends, knew I was loved and appreciated.
I had one story published, “Kin Painted” in Lackington’s, and two republished: “Love Over Glass, Skin Under Glass” in GlitterShip and “Tanith’s Sky” in The Best of Luna Station Quarterly: The First Five Years; and four poems published: “Stone” in Interfictions, “Skin Ashore” in inkscrawl, “Singing Her Body Oceanic” in Liminality, and “The Selkie Before Summer” in Liminality.
Four poems from someone who doesn’t understand 99% of poetry. Whoooops.
Only one of those was written in 2015, and then nothing else but scraps of paragraphs. I repeat: frustrating. Especially since, having figured out the agender thing and having thought about pronouns, that’s something I want to poke more in my fiction, moving away from non-gendered characters and background conceptualisations to characters like me, characters sort of like me, characters less like me. But, alas, the body decreed it was not to be.
In embroidery, I had a good year, I think. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to because of health reasons and unanticipated projects, but I’ve really liked what I’ve done and I’ve challenged myself. I cross stitched Doctor Who using actual embroidery thread for the first time; my blackwork projects included Avengers, Gardevoir, Ninetales. The last of those I’m especially proud of, that style was uncharted (*sunglasses*) territory for me and it was a lot of trial and error to understand what I was doing. I learned a whole lot and I think I pulled it off! I also made several other patterns, and I nutted out a quicker way of making patterns. I’m currently in the middle of an important gift project and then I’ve got a commission to do, so I think after that I’ll take it easy and stitch some Pokemon blackwork patterns I’ve got waiting for me.
I played a few games too. Gravity Ghost was my favourite, even though it made me cry (it was a stressful week)!
My story “Tanith’s Sky” is one of 50 reprinted in The Best of Luna Station Quarterly: The First Five Years! This anthology’s only in paper form but you can still read “Tanith’s Sky” online here. It’s about what happens after the world’s been saved, it’s about grief and non-romantic love and maths and astrology and gender.
And I’m in the new issue of Lackington’s with “Kin, Painted”! It’s about finding a way to be happy in yourself, in your family and in your life, it’s about paint and non-romantic love and romantic love and compromise and being different amongst the different and quite a lot of paint. In a couple weeks the issue will be online for free but if you can’t wait there’s the (very recommendable) ebook and subscriptions available!
My hypertext poem “stone” is up at Interfictions Online! I hope you enjoy it!
In the portion of my life between working out that I wasn’t straight and finding the word “aromantic”, all I knew was that I wasn’t normal. It’s not uncommon amongst aromantics: feeling alone, broken, inhuman, monstrous, alien. I’ve written about it before, in “Even Robots Learn”, but “stone” is more personalised. If I wasn’t human, if I didn’t have a normal human’s normal heart, then I had to be stone. Even though I loved my family and my friends, even though I cared about people and engaged with people, the fact that I could not love in this very particular way meant I didn’t love at all. My heart was concrete, my body was rock, my flesh was stone. I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t love, I couldn’t be hurt. It was an incredibly toxic, unhealthy, self-destructive way of thinking, and it took me years to recover from it.
“stone” is a scar of my lithic years, and I show it to you because it is starkly visible against my heart, my human heart full of love and confidence.
Getting into the more technical side of things, why hypertext? Well, I was looking through some writing drafts when I found a document with the first few lines in it. I had no memory of writing them, no idea what ideas were supposed to follow them. I liked the lines—there was a solid aro sentiment that echoed my late teens, and of course some consonance—but I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I added to them, cautiously, and soon emerged something that was a bit similar to “She is, there—amongst the Mango Trees—a Flytrap Garden”. I decided to bam it up a notch with more elaborate repeating clauses but it soon became obvious that trying to rely on simple formatting like in “Flytrap” would just end in unintelligible mess. I tried different things in Word before I remembered Twine.
Twine creates choose-your-own-adventure stories and games such as Depression Quest. I’d never used it before so I had fun adventures figuring out the basics and getting it to do what I wanted it to do, but it does it superbly. I’ve got some rough ideas for more things I’d like to try in Twine someday! In “stone” I’ve not really delved into what the format’s capable of, but ohh the things it is capable of if you try.
Thank you to the friends who encouraged me while I was experimenting with this poem’s presentation!
When I was a teenager I wrote an epic fantasy that was inspired by the fantasy I read and liked at that age. It wasn’t very good. For a lot of reasons! But I enjoyed it and I wrote a lot about the main characters. And then I decided that two of them should have children, because that’s what happens in epic fantasy. :v
One of their children was the first asexual and aromantic character I ever created, when I was 16 I think it was. However, at that age I didn’t know those terms. I didn’t know those orientations. I was them, of course, but I didn’t know; I didn’t have the language or the confidence or the support to know.
At first he was going to be a rakish dandy, he was going to flirt and scandalise and have liaisons. That didn’t last long; I’m not even sure if I wrote anything of that version. The second attempt at characterisation, however, stuck. He was still attractive, but he was cold and difficult to like, pessimistic and acerbic and spiteful, shy and angry and depressed, unimaginably gifted with magic but self-loathing and without a teacher. Things, finally, went horribly unfixably wrong for the main characters and though his conception delayed matters, when he was young his mother was taken out of space and time, his father fell apart without her and became distant from this youngest son. And then things got worse, as they did in everything I wrote around that time, and most of his extended family were killed. And then things continued at their worst and his best friend betrayed him, and fell in love with him. He got his revenge, but it came with a high cost, and then, ah. And then he was betrayed by goddesses who had cared for him and protected him. Gods who decided he needed to grow up. Goddesses who bewitched him and a female friend into having sex. And after a time perhaps it did work, for as the story rolled around to the next few generations he gained godhood and a happily ever after with one of the very same goddesses.
One friend drew fanart of him, naked but with a nebulous Ken doll-like groin void, and I couldn’t explain why it made me so uncomfortable. Another asked me to write about when he lost his virginity–that aforementioned rape, but of course that wasn’t a connection I had made back then–and I did so with a fade-to-black, and I couldn’t explain why it made me so uncomfortable. Of course, I couldn’t explain why most of the books I read or why most of the films and TV shows I saw made me so uncomfortable.
I didn’t know how to write an aroace without giving them a reason to be aroace. A traumatic, broken, pitiable reason. And then he was raped and then he stopped being aroace because he found the right person.
Imagine what kind of aroace characters I’d be writing now if I hadn’t stumbled across certain webpages.
(Not to say aroaceness can’t stem from trauma or that they would never coincide–just that at that point in my life I had no idea what I was, that I was okay, I couldn’t understand/explain what I didn’t want in my life and what I did want in my fiction. I was mirroring the only understanding I had at that point: people who don’t fall in love are ill and cruel and pitiable and monstrous.)