What do we do when the canon fails to include us?

Let’s talk about the literary canon.

Literary canons are groupings of related works, often centered on a theme such as location, form, or time period. The books that you may think of as “classics” have been canonized, or made permanent members of the canon, due to their popularity, longevity, and teaching ability. This is why so many of us read the same books in school — because our professors choose literature from the same canon.

Anthologies are the most tangible example of the canon because those works are literally grouped into a single unit. Let’s say you want a general familiarity with the history of English literature, from the Middle Ages to the late twentieth century, so you read The Norton Anthology of English Literature from cover to cover.

Do you understand the history of English literature? No. You understand the canon, but what about the countless works that are denied a place in the canon?

Science fiction is historically marginalized because the canon was created as a teaching tool, while genre fiction is seen as pure entertainment (which clearly is not true — arbitrary binary distinctions tend to fall apart if you think about them for long enough). That problem is solved, at least in part, by the creation of genre-based canons: genres are works that share the same form, style, or subject matter; canons exist across and within genres. However, like most canons, the classic canon of science fiction includes a disproportionate amount of straight white male authors. The canon does not represent the readers.

We use canons for the same reason that we use labels for our various identities — because they help us find the stories and communities that we’re looking for. But what do we do when those labels don’t fit? What do we do when the canon fails to include us?

The short answer: we create new ones.

New words are folded into the English language every day. New genre distinctions are popping up everywhere you look, defined by authors who are telling brave stories that reveal the truth about who they — and we — are. Literary canons, both genre-based and general, are created in anthologies, in classroom syllabi, and in the shelving patterns of bookstores, alongside awards and critical recognition. These are systems that we can access and therefore change. We can alter how literature is taught, how books are sold, which books become bestsellers, and how anthologies are compiled.

At the end of the day, an understanding of queer literature is essential to an understanding of literature. An understanding of science fiction is essential to an understanding of fiction. Let’s canonize narratives that reflect who we are.

This post was initially published on Queership.com on 9/27/17. 

It’s okay to show them who you are.

When I was eleven, I wrote a short story set in 1960s Tennessee. It had all of my favorite things: time travel, family secrets, sprawling estates, beautiful girls. The story dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, but it wasn’t about the Civil Rights Movement — that territory felt foreign to me. I didn’t see the problem with my writing until my mom read an early draft and circled the single sentence I devoted to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the margin, she wrote: “You sound like a white person.”

It took me several years to understand what she meant. Why? Because when I first started writing, I was imitating the books I read and the shows I watched. Society had sold me the concept of white beauty. I was addicted to the dream of fair skin, suburban life, a two-parent family, perfect health… the list goes on.

Five years after the “You sound like a white person” incident, I showed my mom a short story I’d written about a girl who was in love with her best friend. She asked me if it was about friendship. I told her that it wasn’t — it was about queer teenagers. I never said that my main character was gay for the same reason that I’d rather not describe characters at all than say that they’re black: because I was scared to reveal too much of myself in my writing.

“You know,” my mom said, “it’s okay to show them who you are.”

That changed everything.

I sounded like a white person. I sounded like a straight person. I sounded like a healthy person. The way I came across in writing never felt like a conscious choice, but an act of mimicry. I didn’t sound like my real self because I didn’t know of many authors or characters who were like me. I hadn’t yet found Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Yoon Ha Lee, or Colson Whitehead. While I’m comforted by the knowledge that there are authors out there telling stories that I need to hear, I’m also alarmed by the thought that there are not more of us. There really ought to be more of us.

So here I am — black, queer, brainweird, chronically ill. I’m ready to write the stories that my younger self needed so desperately.

Here’s the story I want: A black trans kid who manages to save the world in spite of relationship drama and chronic severe asthma. I want my hero to take breaks to use their rescue inhaler while chasing down the Forces of Evil™. And if they have OCD? Even better.

If I want to read this story, I’d better get back to writing.

A version of this post was initially published on Queership.com on 6/26/17.