Notes on trans themes in “Cloth…”

Grandmother-na-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” is a Nebula nominee. As such, it is getting a lot of attention.

I usually let my stories stand on their own. When this story came out, I had written brief story notes focusing on Kimi’s autism in the context of the Khana culture. Even that felt too much for me. I want readers to get what they need from my work, without my external authorial influence.

But as this story is getting more attention, I’d like to write some notes about the trans aspects of this story.

[TWs: general mentions of homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance in the family. Spoiler warnings: discusses gender(s) in the story, but not plot points.]

I think it makes a crucial difference in this case to know that it is a trans story, with multiple trans characters, written by a trans person about trans lives.

This in itself cannot guarantee freedom from fail. But it does set up a specific framework, a framework of an #ownvoices narrative.

I am a non-binary trans person. I am AFAB and bigender. I strongly identify with both binary genders. I use the pronoun “they” as well as “she,” though I am phasing out “she” right now.

I am an immigrant from Russia and Ukraine. As as a queer, trans child and adolescent, I have been strongly othered by my environment. I talk about it in an essay I wrote 5 years ago, shortly after coming out as queer and genderqueer, “No Coming Out Narrative, or Growing up queer in the Soviet Union.” After I left the Soviet Union and moved to less homophobic environments, I continued to be strongly othered, shamed, and pressured – both by my environment and by my family – to remain closeted. My immigrant parents hoped for and pressured me for a trajectory that centered normativity in both professional and personal life. At no point in my life so far have I not struggled with this burden, with this aspirational normativity which has been drilled into me by society, by variably violent bullies, and by family.

Many of us are pressured by families. Especially trans people. Especially trans people (and queer people) who are from non-white and/or non-Anglo-Western cultural backgrounds, and/or who are immigrants. Many trans people I know have strained relationships with their families, and many had to cut ties with their families or were disowned.

This story came from that place, a place of deep hurt in me, and in many of my trans friends. It came from a place of wanting to imagine healing.

It also came from a place of wanting to center a trans character who comes out later in life. For many trans and queer people, coming out later in life is very fraught. Coming out is always fraught. Coming out later in life, when one’s identity is supposed to be firmly established, is terrifyingly difficult. This is my perspective. I am in my late thirties. There’s not enough trans representation in SFF; there’s never enough representation of queer and trans elders specifically. I write queer and trans elders and older people a lot.

The last piece of this is Kimi. As an Aspie and a member of a neurodiverse family of three, I know how many of us struggle with understanding, much less conforming to, the binary gender system which is imposed on us. I wanted to center the personhood of a non-binary autistic person who grows up in a binarist environment and who is also non-verbal or minimally verbal.

The viewpoint of Aviya was difficult for me. It is a viewpoint that begins from a place of both love and at the same time rejection of our truest selves, which is so familiar and so incredibly hurtful for many of us with cis and/or straight family members. When I am writing a viewpoint of a cisgender family member who is loving, but only conditionally accepting I am both writing the other, and writing from a perspective which is excruciatingly and deeply familiar to me. Like many trans people, I have been pressured to learn this perspective, to internalize it, to center it before my own.

It was also deeply healing for me to write this viewpoint. It allowed me to put on a cis person’s viewpoint of us, to see her struggle with who we are, and together with her to look for ways – very imperfect and marked as such in the story – to shift the nature of her gaze, from the societally imposed expectations of gender, family structure, age, and disability, and to come to a place of love which is grounded in acceptance, if not yet in perfect understanding.

Language, and the way different languages code for grammatical gender plays an important role in the story. I am a sociolinguist and a multilingual person, and am often grappling with issues of gender being encoded in different ways in my different languages. These tensions are important in my work.

As always, I am very grateful that this story resonated with so many people. I am especially grateful to my partner Bogi Takács, and to Corey Alexander (Xan West), for their insightful commentary and engagement with this story and this world.

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