An Unexpected Light: What becomes visible

(This is an email that was sent to everyone who has signed up for updates to An Unexpected Light. The October-start course has filled, but I will be running the course again starting in January. If you would like to secure your spot for January, please let me know!)

Dearest phototropes,

This is a bonus email! You can find the first, second, and third on my Patreon. 

Today is Bisexual Visibility Day, and since we are, in this course, searching for the unexpected light together, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to share some content that didn't make it into the syllabus, and also to talk about what becomes visible when we do share the unexpected light.

What are we doing when we search for the light?

What are we doing when we orient ourselves towards the light, phototropic?

And, what happens when we create the unexpected light, when we become bioluminescent?

These are all questions we're asking (and perhaps even beginning to answer) in this course and also in this email. Especially since some of the folks in this email list are not in the course! (Guess what?! THE COURSE FILLED! I am so excited! Because the course filled and there seems to be interest, I'll be running a second round starting in January, so if you were on the fence for this one and want to make sure you have a spot in January, email me at [email protected].)

So, the bonus speculative fiction content, with a few sprinklings of study guide and writing guidance.

Amal El-Mohtar's Nebula, Hugo, and Locus award-winning 2017 short story, Seasons of Glass and Iron, is available online at Uncanny Magazine. 

Content note: This story includes references to rape and rape culture, though no graphic descriptions, and also includes references to intimate partner violence.

Spoilers ahead!

This short story is in my own personal favourite genre of speculative fiction - justice-oriented retellings of fairy tales and myths. In this short story, El-Mohtar offers us a bisexual and explicitly feminist reimagining of two fairy tales, with the women falling in love and rescuing each other. 

Both the iron shoes and the glass mountain have analogs in various literary histories - The Glass Mountain (Polish), The Princess on the Glass Hill (Norwegian), The Princess and the Glass Mountain (Swedish), among others; and stories of iron shoes that must be worn or worn out coming from Portuguese (The Danced-Out Shoes, and The Seven Iron Slippers), Spanish, German (Grimm's Snow White featuring red hot iron shoes, alluded to in the reference to the types of pain felt by the protagonist in Seasons of Iron and Glass), Russian, and other histories. 

This is exciting if you are hoping to write this kind of speculative fiction, because it means you can draw from a wide range of inspiration. And it's also a cautionary note, because you have to be careful where you draw your inspiration from - are you pulling tales from cultures that are more or differently marginalized than you are yourself? Have these cultures been able to tell their own tales, to narrate and to retell and reimagine their own stories and mythologies? These are questions we will grapple with in the course, and this bonus content gives us a sneak peek invitation! 

Rather than suggesting a set of rules or best practices when it comes to both inspirational source material and representing the voices of cultures or communities not our own, I suggest instead (with credit to Nathan Fawaz for this wording) a dialogue that is both internal (a dialogue with yourself about which stories feel right to draw from, and how your storytelling aligns with your values) and external (a dialogue, or perhaps an act of listening, with the communities you are hoping to draw from, or whose experiences you are hoping to represent). This is a topic addressed in the first month of our course, but worth introducing here, too. 

But back to the bonus content. 

I am sharing this specific story today because it is explicitly and openly bisexual, even though the word is never used. And it invites us to think about things that are important and relevant in real bisexual lives, even though it is clearly a fairy tale. And it's bisexual visibility day, and I've been a bisexual community organizer for a decade now, so of course I had to include this!

First, Tabitha loves her bear husband. This is clear. She does not disavow this love, or come to a realization that she never really loved him, or that she is a lesbian after falling in love with Amira. 

This is one important act of 'making visible' that El-Mohtar offers. This challenges the biphobic idea that bisexual folks are confused, or that once we find a partner, our orientation changes to 'match' that partner. (This is the experience of some folks, and that's rad! But when it is assumed or enforced, that's not rad.)

And, Tabitha experiences intimate partner violence in her relationship with her husband. 

This is another important act of 'making visible', because, according to a 2018 UN report, violence against bisexual women happens at alarming rates, and, as with all other things, intersectionality is at play. Bisexual women are at heightened risk of intimate partner violence, bi women of colour are at heightened risk within that category, and so are trans bi women. 

Both Amira and Tabitha see that what has happened to the other is an injustice, and is not her fault. They are able to help each other see that neither of them deserved the abuse that they experienced. This is another moment of 'making visible' something important in this story, because this framing challenges the idea that we can get out from victim-blaming discourses on our own, and also challenges those victim-blaming discourses directly.

There are other important moments of 'making visible', but these ones really jumped out at me for this course, because they offer a way for us to imagine what we want to illuminate in our stories.

As you start to think about the stories that you might want to write in this course (or on your own, or in future rounds of this course), think about what is important to you in the experience you're sharing. What are the underlying pressures, expectations, cultural contexts, intersections of identity, stigmas, stereotypes, or social trends that are important for understanding the story? 

What do you hope that someone with insider knowledge will take from the story?

What do you hope that someone without insider knowledge will take from the story?

These might be very different things! 

El-Muhtar's short story is a lovely and affirming queer fairy tale for someone without insider knowledge into bisexual experience, and that's important. And for someone who does have insider knowledge, it offers affirmation and a sense of being seen in some of the more painful complexities of our reality. 

If your story can work on multiple levels like this, and be accessible to readers at multiple levels, that's a great way to invite readers to extend their imaginations into the visionary world you're creating.

Happy bi visibility day, my beloved phototropes. I can't wait to start this course together in just one short week!



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