Women, Worldbuilding, and Fantasy: GUEST POST
We’re very excited today to bring you a guest post from authors Hadeer Elsbai, E. J. Beaton, Kritika H. Rao, Rowenna Miller, and Sam Hawke.
A big thank you to E. J. for arranging this Q&A!
Fantasy novels offer us opportunities to imagine the word differently, and not only in respect to magic and warfare.
When it comes to the structure of society, authors can take a different approach to social norms and storytelling priorities. This includes fresh approaches to gender, whether that means focusing more on women’s struggles, valuing women’s work differently, or creating a world with gender equality.
In this Q&A, five authors – Hadeer Elsbai, E. J. Beaton, Kritika H. Rao, Rowenna Miller, and Sam Hawke – discuss gender in their novels, touching on their settings and writing process and considering the ways that feminist world-building can empower. Their stories and characters vary dramatically, reminding us that there is no one way to tackle gender in fantasy, but a range of different worlds we might explore.
Q: How does feminist world-building work in your novel? What does it encompass?
Hadeer Elsbai: In my upcoming fantasy novel, THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR, the world is very explicitly patriarchal, and this is a major factor of the plot itself, as the main characters are decisively fighting against these norms in an attempt to gain suffrage and equal rights for women. So while there is plenty of ugly misogyny and unpleasant misogynistic characters, the misogyny serves a very specific purpose; it is there to be challenged and critiqued. The variety of female characters in the novel exist along different intersections of privilege and identity, because it was my goal to present women in all their multiplicities, and to explore power dynamics both at a societal and interpersonal level.
E. J. Beaton: The realm of Elira in my debut fantasy novel THE COUNCILLOR is gender-equal and queernorm, meaning that its citizens face no discrimination based on their gender or sexuality. Along with female royals and courtiers, there are female soldiers, captains, merchants, scholars, physicians, authors, blacksmiths, and so on. This lack of gender-based oppression allowed me to explore the story of a female intellectual – a scholar who faces public and private challenges, from class discrimination to addiction – without setting up the hurdles of sexism. Elira’s gender equality affects details like functional clothing, social freedom, and the order of words in everyday phrases like “women and men” and “ladies and lords.” I prefer to let the gender-equal setting sit in the background and manifest in small details, like the confidence of female leaders, or the way that male characters accept a woman making the first sexual move.
Kritika H. Rao: The world of THE SURVIVING SKY has a lot of problems, but inequality between the sexes isn’t one of them! I knew from the very beginning that the world was going to be as gender-equal and queernorm as I could make it. The story follows a married couple who are struggling to save their world and their marriage, when one of them has class-provided power and the other doesn’t. I found this a newer space to explore the idea of privilege in a nuanced manner. Because influence, opportunity, and the freedom of choice isn’t dictated by a person’s gender or sex, in some ways, you could change the male into a female-character, and the female into a male-character and still retain their personalities almost completely. The problems of the world wouldn’t change because they don’t arise from their gender or sex, but from other classist aspects.
Rowenna Miller: Most of my work is historically inspired, whether it’s second-world or historical fantasy. Historical spaces weren’t always, ahem, supportive of women’s equality—but that doesn’t mean that women were not there, living rich and vibrant lives. Shockingly, women have always made up roughly 50% of the population! One of my guiding principles in worldbuilding, particularly worlds with visible, clear inequality, is “marginalized people live here, too.” By centering non-dominant people’s experience in a world, the worldbuilding is richer and more diverse. In short, even if women are not legally or economically equal in a world I build, I treat them as equally valuable and interesting.
Something that strikes me about many historical eras in which women are on unequal footing is the value ascribed to women’s spaces and work is considered “lesser” than men’s. One thing I like to do is tease this out and challenge it. You can have a strong female protagonist who isn’t a warrior; you can have important women-centered work that isn’t an echo of a world’s male dominated work. It was one of the reasons I wanted my protagonist in the UNRAVELED KINGDOM books to be a tradesperson and a seamstress; elevating the feminine-associated work of sewing before the magic associated with her craft is even brought into a nationwide conflict let me push back on the assumption that women’s work is less important than men’s.
Sam Hawke: For me, feminist worldbuilding in general terms is about not thoughtlessly replicating the patriarchy in our secondary worlds, not falling into the trap that some things just are without asking ‘yeah but why?’ A feminist secondary world is one in which (I think, anyway) the author has thought about gender power dynamics and has made conscious choices to deliberately change how those dynamics work.
In THE POISON WARS I knew there were some ideas I wanted to avoid presenting uncritically, but ultimately I ended up creating a world that hasn’t been shaped by the patriarchy, in which the critical staples of the patriarchy – restrictive gender roles, denigrating concepts, fashions, skills perceived as ‘feminine’, sexual violence, for example – just aren’t there. That means that my characters’ skills and experience aren’t gendered and the cast is not skewed male (including the secondary and background characters).
Q: What’s your process for feminist world-building?
Hadeer Elsbai: Something I think about a lot when writing fantasy is whether my world will be patriarchal, as recently, there’s been an influx of gendernorm worlds, where patriarchy is non-existent, which is great, and is its own kind of feminist world-buildling. But personally, I enjoy mirroring real-world prejudices in fantasy worlds. However, I think if a fantasy world is going to incorporate patriarchy, then it shouldn’t simply be there as set dressing; it should serve a purpose, or it should be explicitly addressed in some way, whether that is via characters who are actively fighting against patriarchal obstacles, or characters simply just surviving in and navigating a world hostile towards them. So, when crafting a world that is not egalitarian in terms of gender, I think very carefully about the characters who will be directly affected by patriarchy so that I can highlight their struggles and experiences. The goal is to avoid reinforcing patriarchy as the default.
E. J. Beaton: I went through a layered process to create a gender-equal world. Many aspects of Elira’s society took form before I began writing my novel, such as the presence of female royalty and skilful female warriors, yet other examples of gender equality evolved as I edited. Since the main character is a scholar, I worked to show her referencing books with many quotations from women as well as men, to hint that female authors had shaped the realm’s cultural and intellectual life. The composition of crowds and committees also changed. In an early draft of THE COUNCILLOR, for example, I had an all-male advisory council, but I realised that it simply didn’t make sense in a gender-equal world. To create a world that felt equalised, I tried to weed out the patriarchal features of epic fiction and fantasy fiction, reconfiguring things until the gender equality lay there as a backdrop for the story.
Kritika H. Rao: My stories tend to be very character and world-driven, where the world itself functions as a character. So, when I’d made up my mind that the world itself wasn’t going to be patriarchy-dictated, it was easier to take that consideration out of the equation. As a woman and a feminist myself, I know that in my head, I exist in a space which is as free as it can be—I see things from behind a lens, where my first-reactions are not based on “This is me as a woman in a patriarchal world” but are based on “This is me as a person functioning in this world.” Of course, there are whole layers to it—and questions of whether it is truly possible to divorce ourselves from our real world and identities even while we exist in a creative space. But by actively removing gender-related ascriptions of right or wrong behaviour within the novel, I found it easier to develop the world of The Surviving Sky. My process was pretty much extending that thought from my head onto the paper by creating a world that I’d like to live in—because I did live in it, all throughout writing it.
Rowenna Miller: Once I have established an aesthetic for the world I want to build, and know what kind of a story it’s going to spin out, I move much of my worldbuilding through my character’s experiences. I build character and world very much in tandem, considering how a world shaped a character and, in turn, how that character’s culture or work or recent historical or political experiences are playing out in the world. Regardless of who my characters are, centering their experiences and how they perceive their world centers the individual. It also raises good questions along the way—why does this world work the way it does? Should it? Am I merely assuming a world would work in a particular way or that someone would make a particular choice in engaging with the world, or am I actively choosing those options? A lot of our primary defaults are informed heavily by inequality. Are women getting enough chances to speak, or am I defaulting to a masculine-dominated norm because I’m used to seeing that imbalance as normal?
Sam Hawke: Quite a bit of my initial process in the Poison Wars actually came almost inadvertently. It came organically out of a decision I made which was based on the characters I had in my head–a brother and sister–and that decision was that they came from a society that really valued that sibling bond above all others. That led me to building a society around them in which romantic relationships are regarded as less important than family ones, and in which in fact there is no concept of marriage at all, so that people grow up and don’t leave the family home to go create a new household with a couple at its centre. And removing marriage– one of the foundation stones on which the patriarchy is built–had all kinds of spiralling consequences. Treatment of elders. Raising of children. How sex and relationships work, and how they’re valued or judged, without a background featuring marriage as a powerful social, political and economic force. And then of course that opened up so many possibilities for gender relations and sex positivity and lack of discrimination and before I knew it there was no patriarchy and it was fucking delightful.
(As an aside, this clearly kind of broke some readers’ brains. Magical beings: fine. Dirt turning into a creepy hand pulling you off a ladder? Sure. Half the cast being women in a variety of jobs? TOO MANY WOMENZ. Men looking after their young nieces and nephews? bUt whY woULd ThEy dO tHaT, etc. Which only proves that we should do these things more often because the patriarchy is a drug, man).
Then there’s the mechanical stuff – going through after the first draft and picking up all the little things that you did by accident because they’re so ingrained. Checking that those background soldiers aren’t all, or even mostly, men. Making sure there’s no gendered insults. Even deliberately writing a gender equal world there are all kinds of little tiny traps that you fall into without thinking about it!
Q: How can feminist world-building empower?
Hadeer Elsbai: Like I said, I enjoy mirroring real-world prejudices in my fantasy worlds, mostly because I think it can be empowering to watch characters fight against and ultimately defeat the sorts of injustices we struggle with in real life. It’s cathartic. THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR, while fantasy, incorporates a lot of sexism and misogyny I’ve experienced, sometimes kicked up a notch, but in some cases, I’ve transplanted entire conversations I’ve had with friends and family members. In the novel, though, my characters (some of them, anyway) are free to punch back as hard as they can, when I myself couldn’t. That sort of escapism is its own kind of empowerment!
E. J. Beaton: I’ve noticed that gender-equal worlds can spark ideas about how we could live without patriarchy. Even if there are other hierarchies in the world, the subversion of gender norms can create little shocks through the contrast with our own present. For example, in a world with gender equality, women need not present themselves for the male gaze, and nor do they need to associate female virginity with moral purity. They can simply exist as sexual beings without entering the Madonna/whore binary.
Interaction and collaboration between female characters can also empower. When female characters mentor other women or work with female colleagues, it reminds us that stories of female collaboration are valuable and valid, even though a long literary tradition has cast women in isolated supporting roles. To me, fantasy is about opening doors rather than closing them, and I love the many doors that female characters can open in imaginary worlds.
Kritika H. Rao: To me, feminist worlds are worlds with more freedom. They take me away for some time from the weight of constantly living within a patriarchal society; and ultimately provides a space to stretch without the weight of gender-related expectation. How can that be anything but empowering? On a different level, fiction influences fact. I’m excited to see the genre welcome more stories with feminist perspectives. It gives me hope for change in our own lives.
Rowenna Miller: The worlds I usually build may not be equal, but they can still empower. I believe there’s a lot of power in simply giving women—giving all marginalized people—space to speak, space to be centered in a story, space to exist as individuals and not as nameless demographics. The worldbuilding is a huge part of that—are women and their roles and spaces in a world an afterthought, or are they considered with the same gravity and interest as men’s? It’s pretty damn hard to write a fully-formed character whose place in the world is an amorphous cloud. I’m in constant awe of the diversity of stories fantasy readers have to choose from today, and the common refrain I hear from readers of those stories is “Damn, it’s so NICE to read a character who’s _____ like me, like my friends, like so many people this world I live in.” Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and seeing fantasy treat women as protagonists with ever-increasing frequency—not as sidekicks or love interests or, please no more, fridged women—is validating and empowering. We don’t exist for someone else’s benefit—we exist for our own stories.
Sam Hawke: There are a lot of wonderful books about people battling against unjust systems, and those books are important, but I think there’s also space, and need, for worlds in which those battles aren’t necessary. It’s important to see those kinds of worlds presented both because it’s a pleasant escape from the real world and because it helps us perceive how things could be better, less restrictive. Ultimately humans learn through stories. We tell stories to overcome the seeming randomness and indifference of the world. We tell stories to make things possible. And when we experience a story that maps out with our own experiences in some way, we can see how we might make different or better choices in our real life. To that end, presenting worlds that don’t reproduce all the inequalities and shitty parts of our own reality is one small way to pose questions about how we live our lives and how we might improve it.
Hadeer Elsbai is an Egyptian-American writer and librarian. Born in New York City, she grew up being shuffled between Queens and Cairo. Hadeer studied history at Hunter College and later earned her Master’s degree in library science from Queens College, making her a CUNY alum twice over. She has published short stories in The Dark and Anathema. Her first novel, THE DAUGHTERS OF IZDIHAR, is forthcoming from Harper Voyager in 2023.
E. J. Beaton
E. J. Beaton is the author of the fantasy novel The Councillor, out now from DAW/Penguin with a sequel to follow. Her previous work includes a poetry collection, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Poetry. She studied literature and writing at university, and her PhD thesis included analysis of Machiavellian politics in Shakespearean drama and fantasy literature. Gender politics, poetics, mythology, and Renaissance literature all inform her work.
Kritika H. Rao
Kritika H. Rao is a science-fiction and fantasy writer, who has lived in India, Australia, Canada and The Sultanate of Oman. Kritika’s stories are influenced by her experiences, and often explore themes of consciousness, self vs. the world, and identity.
The Surviving Sky, her Hindu philosophy inspired epic science-fantasy, is her debut novel and will be out in Fall 2022 by DAW Books. She drops in and out of social media; you might catch her on Twitter or Instagram.
Rowenna Miller grew up in a log cabin in Indiana and still lives in the Midwest with her husband and daughters, where she teaches English composition, trespasses while hiking, and spends too much time researching and recreating historical textiles.
A lawyer by training and a black belt in ju-jitsu, Sam Hawke lives in Canberra. Her first novel, City of Lies, received international acclaim and won the Ditmar Award for Best Novel, jointly won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel and the Norma K Hemming Award, as well as earning Sam a nomination for the Astounding Award for Best New SFF Writer for the 2020 Hugos. Hollow Empire continues her Poison War series.