Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.37: What Writers Get Wrong, with J.Y. Yang

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary, Aliette, and Howard with special guest J.Y. Yang

J.Y. Yang is a Hugo-nominated short story writer from Singapore who identifies as non-binary. They joined us to talk about this non-binary identification, and how writers can do a better job of depicting it (beyond simply using non-gendered pronouns.)

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Your homework: do some research! Read works by the nonbinary writers Rose Lemberg and A. Merc Rustad.

Thing of the week: The Black Tides of Heaven, and The Red Threads of Fortune, by J.Y. Yang.
(Note: We didn’t mention the third book in the Tensorate series, but The Descent of Monsters is also available now).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: “There’s no one way to be non-binary or gender nonconforming.” Don’t just drop non-binary pronouns into a story without thinking about how gender plays out in those societies. This relates to your self, your core identity. To do justice to gender it should permeate every aspect of the book. We have been socialized to put people in boxes, but maybe it is a spectrum. Although these are all artificial distinctions. Beware of equating gender to specific markers. It’s not just presentation. Gender is identity. You may know internally that you are not one of these, but not actually say it in public. How does the character relate to the world? Part of the challenge is that our language does not offer good ways to describe yourself beyond “I don’t fit in the boxes you’ve created” to pronouns and adjectives and whatever.

Out of the boxes… )

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Aliette] I’m Aliette.

[Howard] And I’m going to get it wrong again.


[Dan] That’s okay, we rely on you for that service. We have with us special guest, JY Yang. JY, tell us about yourself.

[JY] Hello. My name is JY Yang, and I am a writer of short fiction and slightly not so short fiction. So I have two novellas from publishing that are out in September, The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven, which are secondary world science fantasy. I tend to write a lot of epic fantasy now, but I actually really love science fiction. I used to write a lot of like cyberpunky-ish stuff.

[Dan] Awesome. Well, that’s cool. Okay, so this is one of our what do writers get wrong episodes, which we love to do. Mary? Tell us about this. What are we doing?

[Mary] So, with these episodes, again, what we’re trying to do is present you with people who have different life experiences than the core podcasters do, as a way of helping you begin to think about different characters that you can start to incorporate. So instead of telling you stuff and showing you stuff, we’re getting an expert in to kind of talk about their life experience. But we want to be clear that these people that we bring on are not speaking for the entire culture. They’re not… culture is not a monolith, and everybody has multiple facets. For instance, JY has multiple facets. What are some of yours?

[JY] Okay, I have… I’m going to say that I love learning languages. But the only language I’ve kind of successfully managed to get like a [garbled] level of reading language is Swedish. I like whales. And I am a non-binary queer person.

[Mary] So, with all of these facets, which one are we going to focus on?

[JY] I’m going to talk about, I think, being non-binary and generally some [what] gender nonconforming.

[Mary] Okay. So that means what do people get wrong about non-binary and gender nonconforming?

[JY] Okay. I have to start off with a caveat emptor in that I have not actually identified or even thought of myself as non-binary for a very long time. I’m 34, I think. Yes. I am 34 years old, and until I was 33, I basically thought I was a cis woman. Interestingly enough, I think it was the process of writing my novellas in which I kind of realized that these non-binary characters that I’m creating, they’re kind of actually me, in the sense that that’s the way I sort of relate or don’t relate to gender. So, that’s my caveat. That… Don’t take my words for gospel. Particularly because I hang out with a lot of like non-binary friends, and we all have very different pathways to discovering that we’re non-binary. A lot of us are still questioning. We don’t have one way to sort of relate to our gender. So I think that you can’t really say, “Oh, no, this is exactly what people get wrong about things.” Because there’s no one way to be non-binary or gender nonconforming. One thing that I think that I can say that actually bothers me when I read about non-binary characters is that people who write characters who use non-binary pronouns, like they/them, em, and… It’s kind of just dropped into the story, and people are like, “Oh, look, I have a non-binary character and they use they/them pronouns.” But I don’t really get a sense of how El’s gender plays out in those societies. It just feels like, oh, the only thing about being non-binary is that you use different pronouns, which… It’s a lot more than that. It’s something that goes to… Well, the way I feel is that it’s something that relates very strongly to… Your self, like core identity. I think gender is something that is very, very cultural. It’s pretty much embedded very deeply in every culture there is. No matter how this is expressed, you don’t have a culture in which gender doesn’t matter at all. Not on this planet. Likely, if you have halfway humanoid characters, it’s not… It’s going to be a thing. So. Yeah, I think that the sense… What bothers me about these characters is that they’re sort of dropped into a world, but I don’t see… I don’t get a sense from the world that gender is something that the author kind of thought about in great depth.

[Dan] So, is there a counterexample that you could give of maybe an author who did their research, who does portray it accurately? What are those differences? What are the signs that, “Oh, yeah, this person knows what they’re talking about?”

[JY] Okay. So I’m going to… I think that… In a way I think… The best thing I think can probably do is to sort of read sort of like non-binary writers who write like non-binary characters with sort of like different gender things. Okay. I think like, for example, Ann Leckie, who is not non-binary, and who, as far as I know, is a woman, but she… Like, her Ancillary Justice novels. I’m pretty sure that was the name for the series, which I’m completely forgetting right now, but you know what I’m talking about.


[JY] I think it’s interesting because she basically embedded gender very deeply in her books, in her system. That’s something that sort of like permeates every aspect of the book if you know what I’m talking about. That is, I think, that is the kind of depth of thought, I think, that if you really sort of like wanted to do justice to gender. That sounds really strange when I say it out loud.


[JY] But, like, it’s not just something that’s sort of a gloss put on top of a world.

[Mary] One of the things about being people is that we have socialized to put people into boxes. There’s a very interesting study that… I’m going to circle back to gender, I promise… About color. That shows that the words that we have for color come into the language at the point when we can create that color. They come in a very predictable pattern, except for Egypt, which gets the word blue way before everybody else does because of lapis lazuli. So this is why in Homer’s The Odyssey, there is no… The ocean is the wine-dark sea. The word blue never occurs. So this study shows that if you do not have the word for a color, you actually lumped the color into a different color category. They did… They showed this video of some people in a society that… A tribal society that… Here on earth, this is not secondary world, this is real world stuff. That has a very simplified color structure, compared to what we think of as a color structure. So things are all in the kind of greens and browns and reds and blacks. They show them a wheel, and they don’t have the word for blue, specifically. They show them a wheel of swatches, and they’re all green except for one that is blue. They’re like, “Which one is different?” They look at the wheel and they guess and they point at different ones. To me, it’s very obvious which one is blue. Then they show them a wheel of this gray green thing and like, “Which one is different?” They all, unerringly, without hesitating, point to the same square. To me it looks completely the same. It’s because they’re using different boxes. So I think, and this is where we circle back to gender, so I think that one of the things that has happened to us is that we have been trained in 2017 to put people into only one of two boxes. So we’re at this generational shift where we are learning that there are other boxes, and that really, we shouldn’t actually be looking up boxes, because, just like color, there is a spectrum. But that these are all artificial distinctions that we are making.

[Dan] I’m… Okay. I’m going to… Before we carry on, we need to pause for our book of the week. So, tell us about the book of the week.

[JY] Okay, the book of the week is actually… I’m going to cheat, because it’s actually two books. But they’re short books. So, like, if you combined them, they’re kind of like one book.

[No no no no no]

[Howard] Our readers, our listeners, have never complained when we’ve given them more than one thing to read.


[JY] Okay. So… The books of the week are my Tensorate novellas, the first two of the series, which comes out from publishing in September. They’re called The Red… Oh, God, I always get the… The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. They’re basically set in a secondary world setting, which is sort of heavily influenced by Asian culture. I have like them swearing in like [Hokien] which is kind of my parents language. It is a world where there is magic that is based on stuff like the five elements which I’ve kind of like sneakily used as five different sorts of like energy in terms of physics. But everyone has the potential to use magic, but learning how to use it is very difficult and it is very much restricted to people in power, people with privilege. So the two novellas are each centered on one of a pair of twins who are born to the supreme ruler of the dominant empire. Their names are Mokoya and Akeha, and the two novellas kind of like sort of tell the story of how they rebel against their mother, and break away from their family and sort of join the resistance to their mother’s terrible rule.

[Dan] Awesome. That is The Black Tides…


[Dan] Oh. Sorry, go ahead.

[Aliette] I want it this week.


[Aliette] I read them and they’re really, really excellent books, and like, they’ve got this really, really awesome world building. And like the gender and the whole coming to your own gender… Like, oh my God.


[Howard] JY said these are coming out in September, and you’re using the future tense. But, by the time this episode is aired, fair listener, they are already available to you. If… they’re going to be up on, is that?

[JY] Yeah. You can… publishing. You can probably get them on Amazon and Barnes & Noble…

[Howard] We will provide links to them, so you can just go get’em.

[Dan] Awesome.

[Howard] No waiting.

[Dan] The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune.

[JY] Yes. Yes yes yes.


[Dan] Awesome. By JY Yang.

[JY] I wrote these. I should know… But sometimes, I’m like, “Mmmm…”

[Dan] Okay. Cool. So. This is a question we’ve asked a lot of our what do people get wrong guests that I would love to ask. What are some of the clichés of an incorrectly expressed nonconforming gender identity that you see? When people do it wrong, what stands out is obviously wrong?

[JY] Okay, so this is not, I think, specific to just non-binary, but a gender nonconforming, in which I do see every now and then, like cis authors kind of equating gender to sort of very specific markers of desire like sexuality or like liking skirts makes you more feminine and liking pants like makes you more masculine. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. As… I think I have my non-binary friends who are very, very feminine, they present themselves very femininely, but they don’t identify as being a woman. A woman. Wow. [Laughter] And… Yeah, I think that’s one of the things where I think you really have to sort of consider like gender is a social construct. And feeling that you’re of a certain gender may not necessarily correlate to how you break out of the boxes that society wants to put you in. Like, you’re a particular gender, you have to present yourself in this, this, this, and this way. I think gender is a lot more than likes surface gloss that says… Presentation in a sense is very much superficial. I think… I feel like gender is an… It’s an identity. It’s something that you can’t really define, you can’t really put into words why you feel this way, but… You just know that it’s right for you. I think that’s a reason also why a lot of likely non-binary people I know are still trying to sort of like figure themselves out and how they relate to society in terms of their gender presentation, and they have some days in which they want to present more femininely and some days in which they want to present more non-femininely… Masculinely [chuckles] I’m a writer, I’m good at words. I’m sure.

[Mary] Let me ask a… Use myself as a useful representative example, and ask a really specific question. So, I have a book that set in 1952, and I have a character in it that my intention is that they are non-binary. But it’s 1952, and that language doesn’t exist yet. What markers would you put in that book that would make you recognize the character as representing you?

[JY] Hum. That’s a very good question. I think that there has to be a certain, I think… Well, it depends on whether… Okay, I think it depends on a number of things, because you can be sort of like internally I know that I’m not one of these, but you don’t actually ever say it in public. So I don’t know if they’re closeted non-binary or it’s actually addressed in the book, because I haven’t read it, I’m sorry.

[Mary] That’s okay, the book isn’t out yet, you couldn’t have read it.

[JY] Oh, that’s good. I didn’t know that. But… So in a sense that I think you have to be very clear on what the character themselves, how they relate to the world. I think like specifically because like I think in the 1950s, like gender was a very… I think that the strictures of gender were… Especially in America, were a lot more constricted than they are now. So in order to sort of like say, “Hey, I don’t fit into these boxes,” you have to have an active sort of rebelling against that. It’s like, well, I know that these boxes are here, but I think that these boxes suck. Even if they can’t sort of articulate that, it’s because I don’t belong to either gender. The boxes that exist right now… They have to be like, “No, these boxes make me feel uncomfortable.” And even if they don’t understand why, it’s just like, “I don’t like them. And I refuse… Or don’t refuse.” But, yeah, that sort of discomfort with the binary has to be there.

[Howard] The challenge that Mary has is merely a slightly exacerbated version of the one that English writers have in general, which is that our language does not offer you good ways to describe yourself in a way that is clear to everyone else. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t fit in the boxes you’ve created.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “This is how I represent,” and to be able to do that with one set of pronouns and one set of adjectives and whatever. We just don’t have those tools.

[Aliette] I mean, we do have languages that have… Finnish, right, for instance…


[Aliette] Has no pronouns. At the opposite end of the spectrum, French genders everything, so, like, the non-binary community in France is like, “We need to do like all the word endings,” and like it’s how do we do this? We need to create this third like nonspecific non-masculine non-feminine gender for everything.

[JY] Yeah. I think in Swedish, they actually sort of… They actively did that. They introduced a third gender-neutral pronoun that some people I know… I don’t want this in our language, but I like that they actively… The people who are… More or less in charge of the language are actively saying, “Yes, we are going to do this.” Which I wish like there was something similar in English, because, yeah, I still get blowback on like using they/them pronouns in English. They’re like, “No, it’s not grammatical.” I’m like, “Mrrr…”

[Mary] Well, actually…


[Mary] Yeah, I was going to say.

[JY] It’s been going on for like four or five centuries at the very least. Right?

[Mary] Jane Austen could do this. You can too.

[Dan] Okay. So this has been a great conversation, but we are out of time. JY, do you have some homework you can give us?

[JY] Okay. Yes, I do have some homework. That homework is to read two non-binary writers who I love a lot. Their names are A. Merc Rustad and Rose Lemberg. So Merc has a collection that’s just out called… I think he… Do You Want to Be a Robot and 21 Stories… Something like that. I’ll give you the name of the thing and then you can put it up. [So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories]

[Dan] We’ll put that up on the website.

[JY] They are an amazing short story writer. Then there’s Rose Lemberg. They write the Bird books, which is a series of short stories, and there’s a novella that’s just out this year with Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Both Rose and Merc right beautiful, evocative, poetic stories that are so full of imagination. The great thing is that they kind of worked very nuanced gender systems into them. But… These are… That’s not actually like the point of the story. The point of the story is not to talk about gender, it’s about characters falling in love, having wants, having desires, having needs. So, if you want to see how people do it, those are great examples.

[Dan] That is perfect.

[JY] It’s neat stories. You will love them.

[Dan] That’s exactly what we need. So, thank you very much. Thank you, JY, for being on the show.

[JY] Thank you for having me.

[Dan] This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.