Sunday, 24 May 2015

What’s in a word? by Liz Kessler

Ten days ago, something wonderful happened for me. The very first book I ever wrote was finally published.

It took fifteen years. Coincidentally, it became my fifteenth published book – and my first YA novel.

The book is about seventeen-year-old Ashleigh Walker going through the final year of her sixth form in school, and the journey she takes during that year. It is what can loosely be called a ‘coming of age’ novel. It is also about Ash coming out as a lesbian.

Some people prefer the word ‘gay’. I don’t mind that. Some people use the word ‘queer’. I don’t mind that either (as long as it’s the modern usage of the word – ie celebrating diversity in sexuality rather than the older definition used as an insult to abuse and offend). Some (not many) still say ‘homosexual’. I don’t even mind that, although it makes me cringe a little to hear it, as it’s a bit old-fashioned.

One thing I have become aware of, during the lead up to, and aftermath of, this book’s publication, is the fact that there are an awful lot more words being used in discussions of sexuality than there used to be, and that for many people – particularly those who are new to the discussion – this can be bewildering. I’ve been in this game over twenty years, and I’m getting a little confused myself.

I’ve found that in discussions about the book, I use different terms, depending on who I’m talking to. In that respect, I’ve been feeling a bit like a chameleon, changing colour to suit my surroundings. One interviewer referred to my novel as ‘the gay book’. I wasn’t too keen on that (and told her) but that wasn’t because of using the word gay; it was that I hope it is much more than just ‘the gay book’. But other than that, I’ve found myself using different terms interchangeably, to fit in with the language of the people I’m talking to.

And I think this is OK. It’s a bit like having a wardrobe full of clothes and deciding which outfit is appropriate, depending on where you are going and who you are mixing with.

For example, I was (gasp, squeal, slightly hyperventilate) on Woman’s Hour and I don’t actually think that the words lesbian, gay or queer were used at all. Jenni Murray introduced the book by saying it was about a girl who realised she didn’t fancy boys, she fancied girls. We talked about coming out. But that was as far as the language went. And I am 100% OK with that. This is mainstream, national, hugely popular radio, so going back to the wardrobe analogy, I guess this is the place to put on my smartest outfit and do my best to blend in.

At the other end of the scale, I was the guest author on the lovely Lucy Powrie’s very popular #UKYAchat on twitter. If we’re to describe this in terms of the wardrobe, I guess this was the event where I stood in front of my clothes, trying to find something I looked cool and young and hip enough in (and cursed myself for even using the word hip, as that only showed how actually unhip I am) found my wardrobe a little wanting on this score – and decided just to go in what I had on.

The discussion on this forum was great: it was amazing to see such a variety of books being recommended; it was heart warming to be part of a discussion that was so open to books about sexuality. Hand on heart, though, there was a small part of the discussion which I have to say left some of us slightly running to catch up: the terminology.

A bit of background.

The gay movement is generally credited to have begun in the 1960s, with the Stonewall Riots. It was about rising up against years of being abused, beaten, oppressed and even killed by homophobic laws and actions. Back then, using the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual’ was radical and liberating.

The word ‘lesbian’ was later added and became widely used by many lesbian feminists in the 1970s.

My own political awakening came in the 1980s and this was around the time that there were arguments in the movement about adding the word ‘bisexual’ to the banners. Those arguments were huge and divisive within (what eventually became known as) the LGB community. Look how far we’ve come!

Similar arguments raged over adding the ‘T’ for transsexual, and I think these arguments lasted even longer. But now, LGBT has become a term that many are familiar with, and a banner that I am proud to stand under.

But even that already feels out of date in some circles. In terms of sexuality, we are living in times where people no longer want to define themselves with broad labels which basically divide everybody into three main headings: straight, gay, bisexual. The times we are living in today are about a richer, more diverse, more grey-area-y way of defining ourselves.

For some of us, this can feel challenging. I freely admit that I find it difficult to keep up at times. Over the last year or so, I’ve been introduced to the acronyms QUILTBAG, and LGBTQIA+ and others like this, which are highly-inclusive acronyms and umbrella terms that many people choose as their label. If this is how people choose to define themselves, I believe it is their decision to do this and nobody else’s. If people feel that ‘queer’ is the only word that sums up their own sexuality, again, that is their decision. Some people struggle with words like ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’, associating them with the negative connotations of the past. For others, ‘queer’ is the only word that they feel truly expresses who they are. It is up to each of us to define ourselves – not to listen to instructions from others.

But in the struggle for more and more inclusive terms, I believe it is also important to remember that not everyone is where we are, and to keep our hearts and our minds open to those who are on our side but might not have all the language to express that just yet. To some people, a coming out novel is brave and risky. To others, every YA novel ought to have characters from every bit of the sexuality spectrum and not be making a big deal about it.

Some might say that YA authors have a responsibility to represent every aspect of our diverse society and to use our novels as ways to educate young people in areas where schools, parents, newspapers and the internet are lacking.

I don’t actually agree with this. Yes, I do believe that books need diversity – and I am proud to be part of doing this in the world of YA books. But I do not believe that we have a responsibility to represent every aspect of society in every novel we write. I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves, our consciences, our deeply-held beliefs – and above all, actually, to our stories and our characters. If we start to think of our books as places where we owe it to anyone to write about certain things in certain ways, our books will turn into political manifestos rather than worlds of characters and stories to entertain, illuminate and impassion young readers.

I have never written a book where my starting point has been political in any way, or where I have sat down and decided that I want to educate or bring about an awareness of certain issues or themes. If I did that, I believe I would kill the story flat and no one would want to read it. Instead, what I have learned to do is to trust that if I open my mind to my stories, and allow my characters to explore and follow their own journeys, the things that matter to me will find a way of sneaking into the pages. And if they do, you can guarantee they will find a way of sneaking into my readers’ hearts and minds too, somewhere along the way.

So whilst the twenty-something-year-old me might have been out there with a megaphone, telling people how they should think, talk and act, I am more comfortable with the way the forty-something-year-old me does it, which is to move more gently, to compromise, to be more accepting. I am willing to listen, to learn as well as (hopefully) educate, to know for a fact that I am not always right and to be willing to let someone tell me how I can do things better.

I have also (finally) figured out the acronym I am comfortable using for myself. It is: LGBT+ which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender with the + as a way of not excluding other sexual orientations or gender identities, but stopping the abbreviation becoming too long! I have seen this used quite a bit, and it feels like the right one for me. See, the great thing is that I get to choose that for myself.

Going back to the wardrobe (which I’ve just realised could also be called a closet) analogy, this feels a bit like I’ve been looking for the perfect outfit for ages and have finally found it. And so I’m going to step out of that closet and wear my new outfit with confidence, and I’m going to shout about my new book with pride, and I’m going to continue to bang a drum for LGBT+ people everywhere, and hope that one day there will be so many of us standing under these umbrella terms that we find we have the whole world in one place and the labels are not needed at all.

Buy Liz's new book Here
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Catherine Butler said...

Many congratulations on finally springing your book from the bottom drawer (which is to books what the closet is to human beings, perhaps?). And what a fortuitous day on which to make this post, in the wake of Ireland's popular vote yesterday!

Susan Price said...

Yeah, who'd have thought Catholic Ireland would be the first country to vote for legalising gay marriage? Good for them on all counts. The polls were right, too!

Congratulations, Liz - I imagine there must be special thrill in seeing the first book you wrote published.

Completely agree, too, with your thoughts on character and plot. There should be diversity of every kind in books - but stories and characters arise spontaneously from a writer's personality, background and experience. If they're expected to mangle this in order to insert whatever diversity is required - well, first, that's going to kill a lot of books. And those that survive will be marred.

if you demand that writers

Joan Lennon said...

Happy - and apt! - Book Birthday!

caroljchristie said...

So much sense, so sensitively put. I'm really looking forward to reading the book - the extract on Women's Hour sounded great.

Stroppy Author said...

And adding a '+' is like adding a smile at the end as it looks so positive :-)

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