IN contributor Steven Bereznai shares the story behind his new book
“I include queer and racially diverse characters in the worlds I build, because that’s what I see in the actual world that I live in.” Those were the words of award-winning author JM Frey (best known for her celebrated novel Triptych) at a queer speculative fiction panel at Glad Day’s Naked Heart literary festival a few years ago. I sat next to her, there because of my gay teen superhero book, Queeroes. Her words turned my thoughts to my (then) work in progress, I Want Superpowers (now available at Glad Day and recently reaching the Top 10 in two of Amazon’s Kindle categories).
Unlike Queeroes, I Want Superpowers features a straight protagonist, Caitlin Feral. It’s still rife with gay imagery—from her muscled younger brother (“what 12-year-old needs that kind of muscle tone?”) to a rave-like scene that would do Coachella proud.
But Caitlin lives in a post-apocalyptic world, divided between those with superpowers (Supergenics) and those without (DNA regulars, or “dregs”). Supergenic children are sometimes born to dreg parents, and are sent to live with “their own kind.” Obsessed with comic books (which are basically propaganda to encourage dregs to Manifest powers), Caitlin dreams of being one of those lucky few.
Caitlin is driven by the desire to be special. Add to that her OCD best friend Normand, her bratty (but oh-so-cute) love interest Bradie, and bitchy/stylish classmate Lilianne, and I was patting my characterization on the back. But building a queer-friendly dystopian society presented challenges—and it was important to me that it be queer-friendly. When I watch shows like Incorporated, Teen Wolf and The 100, where gay characters are introduced as a matter of course, and sexuality is not the main storyline, there’s a sense of: “yeah, cool.”
I had to figure out how that might work in Caitlin’s world, where dregs live under rules akin to the Soviet Bloc, with overtones of 1984. Free expression of sexuality can lead to a transgressive sense of overall freedom. So wouldn’t sexuality be repressed and controlled? And, since the most important thing a dreg adult can do is have a child that Manifests, anything contrary to procreative sex would likely be discouraged or outlawed. But I wasn’t trying to write The Handmaid’s Tale (which Atwood already rocks).
The solution came from the storyline itself. Those in power are looking for anything that will increase the likelihood of teens like Caitlin developing powers. Queer kids are given leeway because statistically they have a greater chance of Manifesting. This is hinted at in Caitlin’s younger brother, who loves his pink underwear. Is it just one of his quirks or a hint of something more?
But back to JM Frey: when I heard her words during the fiction panel, I realized my language did not reflect the world I intended to create. When a handsome Testing Official comes to Caitlin’s classroom, all the girls—and only the girls—show their interest by sitting up straighter. That presupposes that all the girls are into boys, and all the boys are indifferent to their own gender. As a gay man, accustomed to writing queer works, I clutched my pearls, fearing my pink card was about to be revoked.
So I rewrote it, only to realize my pronouns were heavily gendered, excluding even the possibility of trans kids. I rewrote it again, and as I included every permutation of gender and sexual attraction, that one sentence got longer and longer, to the point where the most die-hard gender-linguist would’ve thought, “Nope, I’m out.” I considered resorting to the all-inclusive “they,” but “they” neuters all of the above possibilities into a sterile and bland beige. It conceals, rather than reveals, the range of our rainbow.
In my sci fi, I want to show diversity, not hide it.
I found my solution by asking myself the basic question: “What am I trying to say here?”
Answer: enter handsome guy, and everyone who’s into boys sits up straighter. Short. Elegant. Done. And the sentence was now better. It conveyed a lot about Caitlin’s world, without spelling it all out, and I was able to pepper variations of this throughout the book.
It’s why I love science fiction: the opportunity to explore the present day through future scenarios, playing with language to do so. At first my brain struggled to incorporate descriptions and pronouns that included a range of sexualities and gender identities, but once I got it, it felt more and more natural and obvious, and gave a more accurate portrayal not only of Caitlin’s world, but more importantly, of our own.
STEVEN BEREZNAI is the author of I Want Superpowers, Queeroes, and Gay and Single…Forever? You can find him on Instagram at @stevenbereznai. I Want Superpowers is available at Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto and all major online booksellers.