Special Guest Post: Kat Howard on Putting Women in the Story

“Why aren’t there any men in your story?” It’s the question I get most about “Sweet Sixteen” (Lightspeed, July 2011). Whether I say this in my answer or not depends on the context of the question, but my immediate response is always to wonder whether the person asking the question would have noticed if I had written a story in which there were no women.

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I write speculative fiction because for me, that is the literature of possibility. Oh, sure, to do it well, you need to be concerned about making the strangeness of your story believable to the reader. The science shouldn’t contain any howlers. The magic should have an internal logic. But if you want to make a tiny blonde cheerleader the biggest demon-slaying badass around, good on you.

Although, I’ve noticed that for some people, it’s not the demons that are the unbelievable part of that hypothetical story.For them, the thing that is beyond strange is the idea that a woman can do this--be the hero, kill the monster, save herself. That she’s in the story to be more than the Serving Wench™ at the Epic Fantasy Inn™ or the girlfriend or the virginally pure Final Girl of a horror film--you know, the one the hero gets to in time due to her amazing power of never having had sex. Too many people seem perfectly able to imagine an alt-history with wizards, but not an alt-history with women.

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I discovered that my heart and my home lay in the literature of the fantastic in high school. Perhaps high school, that whirling cauldron of desperation and hormones, is a strange place to embrace one’s inner nerdiness, but it worked for me. I had wonderful teachers, including a Jesuit brother who constantly referred to God in the feminine and assigned Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Pohl in World History, and an English teacher who taught in fangs after noticing a group of us obsessively passing around Interview With the Vampire. I was never one of the popular kids, but I always had friends, and they were the kind of people who would suggest refilming “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for fun one summer. I found my people, and I found my voice.

And then I lost it.

I became, through a series of events far too tedious to rehearse here, invisible, even to myself. I wasn’t a nerd or a fantasy geek anymore, I was just a woman-shaped cipher, dressing myself in the skin and clothes that someone else asked me to wear. I suppose if I can manage to disappear myself so completely, I shouldn’t be surprised when literature manages to do the same thing.

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Except. Except. I write to find myself again. I write because, like so many of us, I have demons to slay. I’ve discovered that--like that tiny blonde cheerleader--I can solve all my problems by sticking them with pointy objects. I just use a pen instead of a stake. And when I write, I can correct for invisibility.

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“Why aren’t there any men in your story?” Because so often, there aren’t any women in stories, and no one notices that. Or when they do, and they ask, they are supposed to accept a facile answer like “It was a novel about war” and smile and nod understandingly, as if war or great works of literature were solely about men. I refuse to accept this as reality--it is an appalling erasure in works of mimetic fiction, and doubly so in works of speculative fiction.

I write speculative fiction because I want to write stories where we already know that the monster is the metaphor, and that the interesting part is what happens next. I write it because we are monsters too, sometimes, monsters in subtle and lasting ways. I write because no matter how subtle the monster, someone needs to pick up a pointy object and fight it.

Kat Howard's short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including the anthology Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, Fantasy Magazine, and Weird Tales. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword.