Writing (casually) queer narratives

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Kirsten Marie Øveraas

Marie Howalt is a Danish, queer author of “diverse, speculative fiction”, writing in English. Until now, Howalt’s writings count the dystopian sci-fi trilogy The Moonless Trilogy and the novella The Stellar Snow Job, which is the first part of a series about the interstellar bureau of investigations, Colibri Investigations. The novels are brimming with queer relationships and persons using other pronouns than “he” and “her”, but the queerness only rarely comes to the forefront of the narratives.

I got to know Howalt a decade ago when we were colleagues and have since become a fan of the novels. For HeartCore we’ve talked about how Howalt uses queer representation in the novels and what thoughts lie behind it.

Find Marie Howalt at www.mhowalt.dk

Firstly, tell me a bit about how queer representation shows up in your novels.

I often refer to my books as “casually queer”. That is an attempt at describing that they have several queer protagonists, but also that their queerness is not a main focus in the books. Or maybe, more precisely, that their queerness isn’t problematic within the frameworks of the books.

When writing about the future or another world, you can choose what to bring with you from your own time. Whether you want to discuss issues, magnify real problems to show how badly it could end, or you want to try to describe your own version of a perfect society. Or something completely different. In my books, humanity has usually put some internal issues behind them. Sometimes due to something external (such as a huge natural disaster or inclusion in a union of intelligent beings scattered around the galaxy with laws and rules that humans have to adapt to), so they have more to worry about than what’s in someone’s pants and who, if anyone, they want to share it with.

Until now I haven’t written any books in which the main theme is coming out, or with a main focus on the characters’ gender identities, sexuality, or them being discriminated against. They have plenty of problems, but their queerness isn’t one of them.

In other words, the characters in my books are just queer, exactly like they’re just nomads, private investigators, engineers, or baristas. Queerness is a part of them and a part of their society, and not the only thing that defines them. The stories I tell usually take place in a world with diversity, in which gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and handicaps are not seen as something you are. It’s something you have.

When queerness isn’t the main theme, how do you make use of queer representation?

Queerness comes naturally in my books in several ways. It feels natural for me to include queer people as major as well as minor characters, and it’s also natural within the frameworks of the books. By that I mean that it’s usually not a subject I treat as problematic or which is being discussed very much in the story. Instead, it’s expressed through the characters’ conversations and thoughts or as a part of the plot. Maybe two people with the same gender identity fall in love. Or someone has sex with two androids with male and female physique, respectively. Or it can be a person who is referred to with gender-neutral pronouns, or something as simple as the airship pilot Eddie (she/her) in The Stellar Snow Job who briefly mentions her “ex-girlfriend”.

When it comes to minor and background characters, I’ve over the years become more mindful of not just inserting the usual standard-character for the part in question. If a main character is talking about a friend’s relationship, that person may have two partners. The doctor who treats the main character may have transitioned recently. The couple in the park doesn’t have to be a man and a woman. Of course, it depends on the society in which the story takes place, but there are often plenty of opportunities for representation among minor characters, too.

Could you elaborate on how the genre plays a part in how you’re using queer representation?

One of the brilliant things about science fiction (and other speculative fiction) is that the genre can deal with many different topics in a discrete way. On one hand it feels natural and casual, and on the other hand it can point to those topics or shift the readers’ view on them a bit. For instance, you can have an alien species that doesn’t have gendered language, or a future in which traditional family structures aren’t predominant, and then use it as part of the narrative without centering it.

Because literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the stories I’m writing are, of course, coming out of the world we live in now. That doesn’t mean that my books are describing what I think will happen in the future, or exactly what I think ought to happen. They are fiction. But I think science fiction should try to change the world just a tiny bit. And for me, that means (among other things) to try to write some good stories that suggest how we can develop as humans.

Finally, can you say something about why queer representation is important in general?

Representation is important for several reasons. It can visualize, explain, and normalize traditionally repressed, stigmatized, or ignored population groups. And it can be a breathing space for exactly those groups; a way to make them feel safe and accepted. Representation in literature and other types of narratives can pave the way for more acceptance in society, and it can contribute to queer people’s feeling of self-worth. 

When I write, I hope to give queer readers some adventures in which they can read about people like themselves in an unproblematic way, and in which they are as empowered and diverse as everyone else.

If someone out there is thinking: “People like me can be protagonists too. There’s actually room for us,” I’m happy.

But I also want other demographics to be able to enjoy my books. I want them to think: “Oh, the kind of space adventure that I enjoy can have a queer protagonist who is as real and three-dimensional as everyone else.”

On a more personal level I think I would have had an easier time growing up if the literature I had access to had been more diverse on the whole.

Most of the books had a powerful guy as the protagonist plus a beautiful woman whose main purpose was to be saved or be at the center of a romance with the protagonist. Of course, it’s a bit of an overstatement, but there was definitely very little queer representation of any kind, and I could have used that.

Speculative fiction has changed a lot during the last couple of decades, and I think we’re in the midst of a rapid development right now. Off the top of my head, I can think of ten popular speculative writers whose books have queer representation in them. It is exciting and extremely rewarding to be a part of that development.

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