I have been getting ready to start writing a new book, and in the process, I’ve been doing a lot of research on an issue close to my heart – that of representation in fiction. At this point, I’ve read probably hundreds of articles about what that means to different people, and I’ve come to this conclusion. While my view of the word is necessarily influenced by how I look and the experiences I’ve had, my ability to write a range of diverse, realistic characters is only limited by my desire to empathize, to imagine life outside of my own skin. If I want to read more stories about blind mermaids, and Indonesian girls who climb magic beanstalks, and sixty year old asexual men winning knitting bees, then I have to write characters like that. If I want more novels that celebrate the fact that being different is normal, because it is normal, I have to make sure my work reflects that too.
There’s nothing – and everything – special about having a sister who’s an alcoholic, or juggling sole custody of children from two different marriages, or not hitting puberty until three years after your friends have. It’s lucky to be conventionally beautiful, but it’s just as special to know that the people who love you think your big nose and hairy knuckles and flat bangs are perfect. Personally, I love how weathered my hands look after years spent rafting without quite enough sunscreen, because when I look at them, a part of me remembers how strong I feel out on the river, and yet, I’ve never thought about the hands of the characters I write.
I haven’t paid enough attention to the schedule a character might have for shaving, or what it could mean for one to buy something as simple as a deodorant intended for the opposite gender. I haven’t considered the types of food each of them might eat, or whether their skin is so dry it must be rubbed with oil after every shower – what it could mean to have parents of different races, or a family so big, no secret can survive in it. I certainly hadn’t considered what it would be like to read a fantasy novel where the only men in the story are a chauffeur, a priest who’s heard but not seen, and a beloved, absent father. When I picked up Cross’ book, I wasn’t expecting to start thinking about the power dynamics of a situation – a family, a school, and a government – filled only with women. I don’t know whether she planned it that way when she sat down to start writing Miss Mabel’s either, but regardless of whether it was a conscious decision or an incidental one, I was fascinated by the result.
Although the story and genre are very different, this book reminded me of watching the first season of Orange is the New Black. If you’re not familiar with the show, it takes place inside a women’s prison, and it does a brilliant job of creating a novel cast of female characters. It was special for me to find a show like that, and a book like this, because one of the things I personally long for in fiction is representation of interesting women. It’s not the only thing I want to read or watch, but when I find myself immersed in a story about women – not just a woman, but a community of women – I feel a part of something larger than myself. The United States, especially, is a culture defined more by individualism than the larger group, so I don’t often acknowledge or appreciate the influence women have on me, but when I have a reminder thrust upon me, the desire to do so bubbles up.
Cross manages to create a world where men exist alongside women, but are not the focus of the story. Much of the novel takes place inside a school for girls, where the teachers are exclusively women, but in addition to that construct, our protagonist, Bianca, is also deeply tied to her mother and grandmother, and the government of the country they live in is matriarchal. Nothing about this feels forced or intended as a slight to men; it’s simply the natural expression of this particular woman’s journey for justice and revenge.
I ended up spending almost as much time thinking about my own perceptions of the world Cross has created as I did reading the book, and in doing so, loosened some important ideas for myself about what I’m searching for in my own writing, and in the books I read. I want more novels like this, stories in genres I already love with an unexpected twist of truth.
For more about Katie Cross, go here.