Once upon a time… A Look at Labels in My Work

Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.

Once upon a time… A Look at Labels in My Work

In January, I talked about using identity labels or relying on the text to make it clear. This week, I’d like to take a look at how I’ve addressed the topic in my own works. If you’ve read that post, it’ll come as no surprise if I tell you that I lean strongly towards making people’s identity clear in the text without using labels. It is, however, not the only approach I use. I’ve used pretty much all of the ones I described there because I decide which approach is best on a book-by-book basis. So let’s dive into my publications in chronological order for no reason other than that it’s neat and orderly[1].

Feather by Feather and Other Stories is a collection of short stories and poetry that pretty much runs the gamut of genres out there, although unsurprisingly it leans heavily towards fantasy. This collection actually features several acespec characters, though only one story explicitly uses the label: To Love a Cat. That’s because the narrative is a more modern setting and it’s about the only time any kind of “you must use the label or you’re a bad ace author” affected me. I included the label as a direct result of trying to internalise that specific message. Left to my own devices, the asexuality would have been inferred from subtext and descriptions. Don’t get me wrong here, though! I like that story a lot and I think it’s stronger for the explicit use of ‘asexual’. It’s a teen-angst story with a lot of fluff at the end. It was fun to write, especially since it’s quite different from what I normally write in terms of setting. I couldn’t imagine writing To Love a Cat without using the label and the description of asexuality (as it pertains to Jules) now. But I’ll also always resent it a little because it reminds me of how I felt pressured into using it with no regard for whether it worked for the character, the story I wanted to tell, or hell, me as an asexual person.

Other pieces, such as the titular Feather by Feather (demisexual) and Where the Last Ripples Meet (asexual) are more varied in how they approach the descriptions, ranging from quite subtle (FBF) to something that couldn’t be louder if I had explicitly included the label (Ripples). You’re likely to miss that Pearl (The Passage of Pearl) is aromantic asexual[2] until you put it in the larger context of my work and realise that “unless explicitly shown, assume characters are acespec and/or arospec” applies to my work in general. (Granted, this is the opposite of how it tends to work for most people, which is “assume allocishet unless explicitly stated otherwise”, but there you go.) You’re also likely to miss that the unnamed woman in Feather by Feather is demisexual because, well, it’s subtle. And, fair warning, contains hints of previous abuse and trauma caused thereby that obscures it further[3].

A Promise Broken features an aromantic asexual deuteragonist. This story leans more strongly on its use of conlang. Though the words don’t show up explicitly, if I do find a way to add them explicitly to related works, they would show up in conlang. This is partially to match my choice in the first book to use conlang for a queer identity. (Short version: I was very new to the overall discussion on the importance of labels and I couldn’t find an existing English word that conveyed what I wanted to me.) It is largely because to me it fits the type of story I was writing and telling. It’s a story that is deeply concerned with bilingual societies and the way I use conlang in it reflects that.

Courage Is the Price actually doesn’t contain any asexual or aromantic characters. It’s one of the few I’ve written where that’s the case. What it does do is attempt to show how a writer can suggest a character is allosexual without either relying on reader assumptions or using an identity label to either imply it or state it. Since I code all of my characters as acespec and/or arospec, when a character is explicitly allosexual I need to signal to the reader that this character is different from my default assumptions. It also serves to stand as a way of highlighting the difference between an asexual and allosexual character precisely because it can’t rely on “assume allosexual is the default” for its characterisation.

If that’s a type of contrast you’re interested in, you can compare Courage Is the Price to my The Swan Maiden (also in Feather by Feather) and A Promise Broken and play Spot the Differences[4]. Alternatively, writers such as Claudie Arseneault (Baker Thief[5]), RoAnna Sylver (Chameleon Moon), Lyssa Chiavari (Fourth World and Cheerleaders from Planet X[6]), M.C.A. Hogarth (Jubilee Summer[7]) or Taylor Brooke (Curved Horizon) will offer you a chance to look at the differences. Note that, of these, Hogarth is the only one not writing ownvoices queer representation.

(Side-note: Yes, that means Courage Is the Price’s Rue is a lesbian and allosexual. She spends a good portion of the story crushing on Priti. She’s just also a very anxious and preoccupied disaster lesbian and doesn’t really notice she’s doing it[8].)

Sea Foam and Silence and its companion A Harmony of Water and Weald are very fluffy, queer fantasy verse novels. They don’t use labels themselves, but the narrative is pretty clear about it. It discusses the way Bernhard doesn’t want to engage in traditionally allosexual aspects of society because he’s not comfortable with the sexual aspects they imply. It shows it in the way Maris only slowly falls into romantic love with Asta as compared to Asta’s far more immediate interest. It never mentions the labels, but unless you erase both the subtext and the text, it’s pretty obvious. These stories are very much the type of aro and ace representation I live for, even if it means some people will miss the implications because they don’t know the terms. Education is great, but it’s not the job of every creative piece out there to educate.

Sometimes we just want to… exist. Quietly. Acknowledged without great fanfare or powerful labels. I mean, aros and aces get death threats for simply stating that we exist. (Go find your own receipt if you need them. They’re not hard to find and I don’t need the hate.) So, sometimes, all I want is a story that lets me forget all of that and, for me, that’s often a story that shows us the identity without ever using a label.

That and, I’ll be honest, Maris is so clueless about the human world that it would make no sense for her to understand ‘asexuality’ as a concept well enough to use the identity labels but not ‘love’. Could I make it work? Sure. I probably could. But to me it ruins everything I love and wanted about the piece. Besides, if Asta doesn’t need a label for people to know she’s a lesbian, why do Maris and Bernhard need one in the same story for readers to know they’re demiromantic asexual and aromantic asexual respectively? The issue here isn’t that I don’t use labels in the story: it’s that society erases our existence and labels are a quick way to shout “We’re here too!” that other, more well-known and better-understood identities have the luxury to skip.

On the flip-side, and we’re slightly breaking chronology[9] here, The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion absolutely revels in using identity labels. Though it’s in the same overarching series as Sea Foam and Silence, its approach to using words and labels is the polar opposite. In The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion what I wanted was that loud-and-proud narrative, that angry “We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going away” narrative because it’s true.

It’s no secret that The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion is a story born from hurt and anger. It’s a fierce middle finger aimed at the people who say the words we use to describe our identities don’t matter[10], to the people who say we don’t understand our own experiences. I mean, I’ve seen anti-ace rhetoric that will insist an asexual was assaulted for literally any reason other than asexuality even when the person who assaulted them explicitly said “I did it because they’re asexual”. That’s how erasive some people get about asexuality. That’s why words matter.

And that’s one of the key points about The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion, actually. The fact that the duke assaulted Marian specifically because she’s asexual, the fact that her father forces her into a relationship she doesn’t want specifically because she’s asexual, the fact that people ignore her desires specifically because she’s asexual… All of that stems from the same hurt: that idea that nothing can happen to us because we’re asexual. That the hurts we suffer have to come from literally anything but our asexuality no matter how much of a reach it is. To discuss that, I needed the words we use. Doing otherwise would not only be an exercise in futility because sometimes textual evidence only gets you so far, but it would be irresponsible. Our words and terminology are frequently ridiculed and derided by vocal ace exclusionists and our existence constantly attacked and questioned, often by the very people who should’ve been on our side because they understand.

And because I’m an all-in kind of person, I added as many labels as I could sensibly get away with. Go big or go home. It’s that kind of narrative.

To tell you the truth, I was surprised by how validating writing The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion was given my personal dislike of using labels in fiction. A story where I basically said “Eff everything, I’m doing this” and followed through was very powerful in ways that using the terms in everyday conversations isn’t. I’m still working on unpacking that because my fundamental approach to writing acespec and arospec characters hasn’t changed. I’m still very much a person who makes the decision on how to include information like identity labels on a case-by-case basis. It still won’t work in every story for me.

This is, coincidentally, precisely why Among the Glimmering Flowers (and the unpublished later books) don’t use the terms or the labels, but rely on textual descriptions and subtext again. This narrative is, overall, the story of a girl who struggles with understanding her sexuality precisely because she can’t explain how it works or why it’s so different from everyone else’s effectively. It’s very much a story about what happens when you grow up knowing that something about you is different but you don’t have the words. If I use the labels that undermines a core aspect of the story: that it’s okay to be acespec even if you don’t have the words. It doesn’t make you less you and it doesn’t mean you’re broken. So labels? Aren’t happening here because it’s not a story where they work. I will, however, quite happily use them in marketing and discussions about my work. I don’t want to never use labels for my works, after all.

And that’s a wrap on how I use labels (or not) in the stories I’ve published to date. I hope that was interesting. There are many, many ways to tell an asexual or aromantic narrative, as I hope I’ve demonstrated in this piece. Ultimately, only you can decide what way is right for you and the story you’re telling. I just want to give you an idea of the options you’ve got[11].


[1] And, also, going over it chronologically lets us see if there are any significant changes in my approach as my understanding and awareness has grown.

[2] She does also fit the social loner type, so if you’re wary of reading works that use stereotypes and/or tropes about asexuals and aromantics, tread warily around that one.

[3] Fun fact: I like subtlety. Much to the chagrin of everyone who reads drafts of my work. If I’m admitting something is subtly done, expect to need to close-read it a few times to pick up on it.

[4] Or don’t. I might get around to playing it with my own work eventually and save you the trouble. But it’s a fun exercise, so…. go and have fun!

[5] Although if you want to play Spot the Differences, I’d recommend the Isandor series for its larger cast.

[6] You’ll need to read both to play Spot the Differences.

[7] Technically, for best effect you want The Dreamhealers Saga followed by Princes’ Game with a detour into Her Instruments, but if you resonate with Jahir’s portrayal in Dreamhealers, prepare for disappointment in the other series. But the Jubilee Summer duology directly contrasts an allosexual pov with an aroace pov in ways the other series don’t. They’re just necessary background reading.

[8] Also: I may be bad at writing allosexual characters.

[9] The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion and Among the Glimmering Flowers were published in the same year. Illusion was published later, but for structural flow I’ve had to flip them here.

[10] Unless it’s theirs. Then it’s paramount.

[11] Check out the other authors I’ve mentioned as well for more options! There are loads.

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