Fantasy, as a genre, can feel pretty tired after a while. The same themes — prophesied heroes saving the world, ancient evil uniting reluctant warriors to a common cause — crop up again and again. The same mythology — elves and dragons, swords and sorcery, knights and kingdoms — is rehashed, with barely a twist to be found. But every once in a while, you find a book like Ariah, by Denver author BR Sanders, that breaks the mold in some fascinating ways. The world in which it’s set is, in many ways, an epic fantasy world —- there's magic, and elves — but its story is small-scale, even intimate. And while its setting can be called “epic fantasy,” it’s a far cry from the typical medieval-times-with-magic setting so popular in the genre. We sat down with Sanders to talk about her world, what sets it apart from mainstream fantasy, and the art of writing fantasy that incorporates LGBTQ perspectives.
Westword: Let’s start with a brief overview of the book and what people can expect from it.
BR Sanders: I think it would be best to classify it as an epic fantasy, but I think that doesn’t really mean something like Tolkien. The interesting thing about it is it is an epic fantasy in terms of, there’s a lot of world-building, there’s elves, but its scope is very small. It’s really just about Ariah, and his life and how he chooses to live it, against this big backdrop. It’s not about throwing an all-powerful ring into a volcano at the end. I wanted to take something grand and sweeping and tell a really personal story against that backdrop.
I grew up reading Dune and The Lord of the Rings and all these really big, epic stories, but that’s not the way we tend to live our lives, right? I’m not Bilbo, right? I’m not Paul Atreides. I’m me. I go to work and I come home and I raise my kid. I’m living a very small, quiet life, and there’s a lot of power in that. That’s what most of us are doing. There’s a lot of drama in that. That’s where the real changes happen. I wanted to mine the power and drama of that very quiet kind of story, but set against a very foreign, magic-dripping backdrop. It is an epic fantasy, but it’s an epic fantasy told in a very specific, very narrow way.
It’s really Ariah’s story, and it’s really about his growth as a person and the way he tries to find what’s comfortable for him and what the world means for him and how he coexists in a place where his desires are not what is accepted in the world. What does it mean when what is “home” isn’t comfortable for you? Or what you want is not accepted? Or when you grow up and start to question what you’ve always taken for granted?
That’s an approach taken more often in mainstream literary fiction — telling intimate stories against some big backdrop. You’ve also departed from traditional fantasy with your world-building, which features technology like trains alongside the magic and elves. It’s definitely not what I think of when someone says “epic fantasy,” which tends to lean heavily on a lot of tired tropes dredged up from Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons.
You think of epic fantasy and you think of, like, Game of Thrones. It’s medieval, there’s a lot of white dudes, there’s a lot of swords involved, usually. There’s not a ton of that happening [in my book]. The world that Ariah is in is clearly on the precipice or is just past the Industrial Revolution. There’s lot of factories. There’s a railroad that’s a really big thing that’s happening.
The world-building is really, really intricate. It’s a lot about, how is food happening? What is the economy like? What is going on where you have elves with magical abilities but they’re the minority and they’re oppressed? Those magical abilities are really valuable, though, so what is going on where they have something really valuable and potentially dangerous, but they’re under the thumb of this other group? How does that work? Why can’t they rise up, or why haven’t they already? What are the structures being put in place that are keeping that population exploited?
I have a background as a community organizer. I used to work in the labor movement and I’ve done a lot of reading about historical social-justice movements and stuff like that, so I drew on a lot of different texts. I reread Malcolm X’s autobiography and that was pretty part and parcel with a lot of it. There’s real-world parallels steeped all through it. If you look at the way that real-world railroads were built by the Chinese in this country, there’s some really clear ways that Elvish labor is used to build the railroads in that world. Classically, it would be epic fantasy, because there are elves and stuff like that, but it’s trying to bring it up to speed with a lot of other things going on in the diverse literature movement, including race theory and gender theory and things like that to keep it from being another “white dude saves the world” kind of book.
Is fantasy a good way to explore these ideas and themes? Can it be disarming in a way that makes it accessible to people who might shut down the moment you start talking about institutionalized racism or gender theory in real life?
I think it has great potential. I’ve always been drawn to speculative fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, because of its potential to do these thought experiments. I was trained as a research psychologist, as a social psychologist. I have a PhD in psychology. That took a really long time and it wasn’t much fun. [Laughs]. But in the training, you learn to break things down and think of it piece by piece, and I think I brought a lot of training to writing and doing the world-building. If you change this one little piece, what would the world look like?
There’s one culture that Ariah encounters in the last third of the book that doesn’t think of gender the way we do in our society. They just don’t ascribe a binary. There are what we would understand as men and women. Biological sex does exist, but they just don’t ascribe pronouns the way we do. So how would that culture come to be? How would it exist? And how would Ariah, having lived in a society like we do, where those pronouns do exist, how would he adapt to that? That was something that got explored.
Those little kind of piecemeal thought experiments, how do you create those and then how do you write a narrative around them? I think that speculative fiction, more than literary fiction, has great potential to explore those questions. Whether or not that always happens is a big “if.” It doesn’t always happen and there’s some great contention within the field whether or not [it should]. Obviously, these issues are really important to me. I don’t enjoy a lot of what [is out there] because I don’t see myself represented — as a queer person, as a trans person. I do think that I have explored a lot, in the fiction that I write, that I would like to see in the world in the future. What equality would look like, what would equity look like? What are the kinds of changes we could make today, and how would they play out?
I understand you identify as genderqueer. Could you give a quick explanation of what genderqueer means, or at least how you interpret that?
What that means to me is I was assigned female at birth, but I don’t identify as either a woman or a man. I identify as non binary and trans. Mine isn’t a typical female-to-male transition, I sort of hopped off of the gender binary for the liminal no-man’s-land of gender. Neither category fits and sometime both categories fit. It’s an awkward space where there’s not a lot of societal narratives. Genderqueer fits the best, because it sort of encapsulates both and neither at the same time. That’s why my preferred pronouns are “they.” They’re sort of both and neither at the same time. It took me a really long time to get to that point, where I realized that what was going on.
And Ariah explores a lot of those themes and ideas?
Yeah, this book is extremely queer. Basically, everything I write is. It’s not an intentional axe I have to grind, it just keeps coming up. It's a persistent theme in my work. Ariah ends up coming out, over the course of the book, as bisexual, which is a very fraught process for him. The culture he comes from is not very open in terms of that. It mirrors our culture in terms of that. It is not a particularly normative thing for him, though he ends up reacting with cultures where that is a much more permitted thing, where being bisexual or pansexual or just not even having a label for it is okay. It’s very eye-opening for him.
There are also elements of trying to understand different ways to conceptualize gender that I think are pretty new in terms of fantasy and science fiction. For example, the male elves, when a kid is born, can take on some of the parenting. They can produce milk, and nurse, which is an interesting experience. Ariah doesn’t do this, but someone he knows does this. He’s fascinated by it and kind of knows he would not be okay with the changes that would go through his body and that would be a profoundly disturbing experience for him and his understanding of his own masculinity. For the person he knows, it isn’t — that person is like, “Okay, that’s cool. I have breasts now. That’s fine.”
There’s also this culture I mentioned before, the Droma, that’s just kind of a free-for-all in terms of gender. Bodies are not gendered in the same way. Roles are not gendered in the same way. The reason for that is they’re nomadic and in clans that are really small. There’s real-world precedents for this. There’s not the same ecological reasons to distribute jobs and work across gender lines as there is in established agricultural societies. The upside is that Ariah ends up living with them and has to reconfigure his own understanding of himself and his gender again. Is he a man? He might be a man when he’s living at home, but maybe not with these people, who really don’t have a conception of what a man is because they don’t distinguish between one biological sex and another. Everybody is just a person.
I do explore themes of what we consider gender, what constitutes it and what language we use around it, pretty heavily. That’s a recurrent theme in a lot of my work. Ariah was recently nominated for a Tiptree award, which is an award for science fiction and fantasy for works that explore and push boundaries of gender. It was a big surprise, but I’m pretty proud of it. Those themes are pretty close to my heart, so it was a pretty big deal.
Have you found fantasy readers in general are open to this stuff? Or is it relegated, perhaps unfairly, to a niche? It feels like fantasy, and science fiction for that matter, can be pretty conservative. Do you see your audience as the general fantasy fan, or is it more the people who are already inclined to engage with these ideas?
If you’re asking, am I preaching to the choir? I would say yes. I pitched to small presses when I was subbing the book, because I didn’t want any pressure to make the book more “marketable,” I wanted to publish the book as it was. I got some of that feedback when I was subbing a bit. They were like, “Uh, it’s pretty queer. It’s hardcore queer.” And I was like, “I am aware of that. Duly noted.” [Laughs.]
I got picked up by Zharmae and they loved it. They never asked me to change anything. The only major changes they asked me for were to clarify things in the text, which made it better. They never asked me to take anything out.
The hardest thing about that is making the book discoverable, and making sure that people can actually find it and finding a readership. I’ve been playing to my strengths with the book, making it discoverable to people I know are already okay with reading queer content. It’s mostly been people who identify as being LGBT, specifically trans-friendly. Those are people I already know are dying to read something that reflects their lived experience, and this already does. I will say that the negative feedback I’ve gotten is largely from people who are hardcore male/male slash fiction readers who thought it was going to be a nonstop orgy, and it’s a slow burner. It doesn’t get there fast enough.
It’s funny, because fantasy seems like a great venue to engage with these issues, with magic allowing for all kinds of transformations, including of gender. It seems like if you can find dimension swallowing evil “believable,” you shouldn’t have much of an issue if the main character switches gender halfway through the story.
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Right, if there are dragons there, you should be okay with trans people, too. Spoiler, there are no dragons in Ariah, but there are elves. I think that speculative fiction is great for talking about these issues. I think literary fiction is great for talking about political issues. I think all art is really right for talking about political issues. I think that’s why we do it, that’s why human beings have always done it. I think speculative fiction is just one particularly interesting way to do it.
Anything else you want to mention before we’re through?
I am very nearly through with the first draft of a companion novel for Ariah that focuses on two of the three main characters, Ariah’s two love interests. It’s simultaneous with the last third of [Ariah]. That’ll be going to press in the next month or two, and probably out sometime next year. So if people like the book, there will be a follow-up novel sometime in the next year. It’s tentatively titled The Search. Also, my debut novel, called Resistance, was set in the same universe. It was from Inkstained Succubus Press, and that’s available through Amazon.