Written by Anna @RattleTheShelves
I remember when I’ve heard that “Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire would soon come out and that it’ll feature an asexual main character. I was twenty-two and I was just trying on the label after having read everything on the internet and some academic sources. Until this moment the only ace rep I’ve encountered was the horrible episode of “M.D. House” where an “asexual” patient is “cured” following removal of a brain tumor and his wife turns out to have been just pretending to be asexual for his sake. The only positive thing about this rep was ripping it apart in a class. Still, at that point it was the only ace rep I was aware of. To see someone like me in a book, more, in a YA book, seemed an improbable dream. It was also utterly terrifying.
What if I wasn’t really asexual? What if I was experiencing it in a wrong way? What if EHAD would confuse me all over again? Now I know that it’s not how labels and identity work but I also know that fiction carries an immense validating power. You’re suddenly no longer alone. It’s one thing to know people like you in real life or on the internet. It’s something else to know that you’re worth creating stories about.
Despite my fears, I’ve devoured EHAD just after it came out. Nancy might have been romantic asexual while I tend to describe myself as “even more aro than ace” but it didn’t matter. For the first time in my life I could relate to a character in such a way. Until EHAD I hadn’t really understood the need for diverse representations. This was a turning point for me. From this moment on, I started reading more and more diverse—to learn, yes, but also to support OwnVoices authors and to show the publishers that we need these stories. So that no one else would have to wait twenty-two years before encountering someone like them in fiction.
A year later I stumbled upon “Quicksilver” by R.J. Anderson, a sequel to “Ultraviolet.” It had a different protagonist and I’ve clicked with her momentarily and followed her adventures… and then it was mentioned that she was aromantic asexual. I loved it. It was a great duology to begin with but this tiny detail changed everything. Until today it remains my favourite aro ace representation—in many ways because the romantic/sexual identity was only a tiny part of who the character was. Incredibly, my next read was “Radio Silence” by Alice Oseman with a demisexual character. That was two a-spec characters I’ve stumbled upon by chance, in a row. Ever since, I’ve seen more and more ace and aro rep around. Some other of my favourite representations include “Summer Bird Blue” by Akemi Dawn Bowman, “Sawkill Girls” by Claire Legrand, “Let’s Talk About Love” by Claire Kann and “The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy” by McKenzie Lee. Since Samantha Shannon confirmed that Paige from “The Bone Season” is demi, it’s definitely on top of my list, too. Two books that I can’t wait for are “Beyond the Black Door” by A.M. Strickland and “Loveless” by Alice Oseman.
Shortly after publishing my review of EHAD I got into an argument about representation with someone on Goodreads. Their reasoning was that they refuse to rate a book high just because it has a particular representation. They claimed that EHAD wasn’t all that good and that ace rep skewed my judgement. Perhaps they were right. EHAD will always be a special book for me because it’s the first book I’ve seen myself in. I’ve been scared to reread it since that first time, however, I’ve loved the next three “Wayward Children” books, too, so I doubt it was purely the ace factor. It also definitely doesn’t apply to the books with ace rep I’ve read afterwards as I haven’t liked all of them. “Tash Hearts Tolstoy” by Kathryn Ormsbee wasn’t for me. Highly acclaimed “A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyle was atrocious. There is enough ace/arophobia around without books where a person who “just cannot form these sorts of attachments” is a murderous psychopath.
With more and more a-spec rep around I became a little less hyped (though it’s still a key phrase that momentarily makes me add a book to my tbr) and more critical. What I’d like to see more of are a-spec characters who question, test and experiment. Characters who crave a relationship but are not willing to compromise the aromantic/asexual part of them. I can think of two books where a-spec characters try relationships without being sure if they even feel the romantic attraction: “Quicksilver” and “Sawkill Girls”—however, in both cases it happens only at the end of the book so we never get to read about it. I can’t stress enough how important it is to see characters who aren’t 100% sure of their identity at the age of sixteen. For everyone, not only a-spec people. The reason why so many people connect with Alex from “Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston is that he’s probably the first character in a well-known book who starts questioning in his twenties. We need more Alex Claremont-Diaz-es. We need books that repeat over and over that labels don’t have to be for life and that we can be attracted (or not) to different people at different stages of our lives and that who we are now doesn’t make our past experiences any less valid. Alex is not on a-spec but his struggle was deeply relatable to me.
We need more questioning characters, especially in YA. Hardly any of the queer people I know, especially a-spec, had a fixed label back in high school. Meanwhile, in YA everyone seems to “have always known.” The only character who keeps questioning throughout a whole book I know is Angel in “I Was Born For This” by Alice Oseman. Generally, Alice Oseman is my go-to for YA contemporaries not centered around romance (also super on-point pop culture references but I’m biased since we were born in the same year) and my expectations for her OwnVoices “Loveless” are sky-high.
We need characters who try different sorts of relationships and who know when to quit them. Almost all a-spec people I know, myself included, thought they were bi or pan at some point (usually because we didn’t know that the complete opposite was a possibility). I sometimes feel that authors think that writing characters who aren’t completely sure, secure, and proud of their sexuality, particularly in YA, would be somehow damaging. The perfection complex in queer people is too pressing enough without having it reaffirmed by fiction. In short, what I call perfection complex is the feeling that our bodies/attractions are queer enough so we need to “make up” for it with being as perfect in any other area of life as possible (the perfect example is the stereotypical obsession of gay men with their looks). The perfection complex is reaffirmed by works of fiction and it’s incredibly damaging—queer or not, we are only human. We come in all shapes and sizes and are imperfect by definition. This is why I’m waiting impatiently for “Beyond the Black Door” by A.M. Strickland—fellow aro/ace bookstagrammer received an ARC and loved for once reading about a character who isn’t that secure in her identity and perhaps pushes herself too hard. We can never have enough books telling us that who we are is valid but we also need books that describe the struggle of embracing an identity and assure us that it’s okay, too.
There still aren’t enough stories about aromantic people. While asexuality slowly becomes “acceptable,” particularly in American YA which tends to abhor sex either way, aromanticism is rarely taken up. I still see the same, incredibly damaging words, repeated over and over: “it’s only human to love [romantically].” There seems to be an unexplainable link between experiencing romantic attraction and soul. It’s arophobic and it needs to vanish right now. Moreover, since most plots seem to contain at least some romance, aromantic characters are usually seen as boring and can be at best used as sidekicks. What happened to the good old group of friends having adventures? Whenever lack of romance stopped someone from changing the world, discovering new planets or overthrowing a dystopian regime? I’ve also never read about a character who’s aromantic but experiences sexual attraction, though I always think that Lada from “And I Darken” by Kiersten White is one.
While we are discussing my a-spec rep wishlist, I really really want to read about characters in Queer-Platonic Relationships. QPRs are committed relationships (exclusive or not) without the romantic and/or sexual component. To most people they usually seem like friendship and they usually do develop from close friendships. Perhaps it’s because I mostly read YA but I can’t recall ever reading about a QPR. Most a-spec characters either conform to the heteronormative standards (rarer enter gay relationships) or stay forever single. As QPRs are quite popular in the ace community, I hope that this omission won’t last long. It’s about time that fiction started discussing in-depth different forms of attraction and relationships.
As I’ve said at the beginning, fiction holds an immense validating power. Story-telling has been with us probably since the beginnings of the human species. To be seen worthy of a story, interesting enough and, most importantly, real (as opposed to “it’s all in your head”) is an indescribable feeling. So far 2019 has been an incredibly diverse year for YA books and I hope we only get better from now on. There can never be enough good, especially OwnVoices rep, particularly for the lesser known identities. As of 2019, more and more people have heard about asexuality. It means that I don’t have to follow every coming-out anymore with a definition. Some people even start to believe that a-spec people are just that—human. No more soulless sociopath aliens or patients with brain tumors. There’s hope. We exist. We are valid. We belong.
For more thoughts on representation in books, among other things, along with gorgeous pictures, check out Anna’s Instagram over at @RattleTheShelves
ASEXUAL AWARENESS WEEK
20th – 26th of October
Ace Week is an annual event celebrating the progress the asexual community has made.
You can read more about it over at: https://aceweek.org/