I want to start off by saying this article was sparked by this Twitter thread by JY Yang about being placed on lists of women writers – I want to identify these writers as nonbinary, which is deserving of respect and inclusion as it’s own gender. You’ll find no erasing of identities here.
I think a lot about this article by Akaweke Emezi. In it, they describe a bit of Igbo mythology – the ogbanje, a trickster spirit that inhabits the body of children. Emezi specifies that these spirits must never reproduce, and how their identification with the ogbanje through the inhabiting of two worlds influenced their decision to have a hysterectomy. “It was inevitable that I’d be drawn to these overlaps, since I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive.”
Listen. Gender is hard. For those of us who identify beyond the binary – nonbinary, genderqueer, gender-fluid, trans – finding language to describe what we are feeling can be difficult and emotional. In their article, Emezi states, “our language around gender identity is often so Western”, which is absolutely true. It makes sense that we might turn to the supernatural or mythological for help. For myself, I always identified with stories about changelings – perhaps I was a fairy or elf and was simply in this body and this world by mistake.
Other cultures have terms to describe this feeling – Natives use the term two-spirit, Hijra is a South Asian term, māhū in Hawaiian culture. For those of us who are stuck with Western concepts, it can be hard to find our place in the world when we are stuck feeling in-between – not masculine enough, not feminine enough, and unsure how to explain that we are both, or neither, or happily inhabiting the space between.
So, we make art. And while not all of these writers discuss gender, sometimes it just helps to know that there are people like us out there. If you’re looking for writers who don’t identify beyond the binary of man/woman, here’s a good place to start.
Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater made a huge impact when it published, garnering attention from the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and pretty much every publication that talks about books. Freshwater does explore identity and duality in many ways. Emezi was raised Nigeria, is Igbo and Tamil, and is also a video artist.
JY Yang is a sci-fi/fantasy short fiction and novella writer, with works including the Tensorate series, made up of The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. They also have several pieces of fiction on Tor.com. Yang has been nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award, cementing their place among the SFF best.
Eileen Myles is maybe one of the most important writers working today. They have produced a massive bibliography, including the iconic memoir Chelsea Girls. Other works to check out include Afterglow (a dog memoir), and I Must Be Living Twice. Now, here’s the deal – you’ll do some googling and see Myles identified as female in several places, and referred to as a lesbian. But they have self-identified both on their website and on Twitter as “they”, so, here we are. Legendary non-binary.
Danez Smith is a black, queer, National Book Award nominated poet. Their collection Don’t Call Us Dead is an incredibly important work for our time, and explores sexuality, race, family, and politics. They are the recipient of many many awards, fellowships, and accolades, and also host a poetry podcast called VS with Fanny Choi.
Rivers Solomon is the author of the “transgenerational” Afrofuturist novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, which deals with slavery (on a space ship), gender, and sexuality. An Unkindness of Ghosts definitely takes us beyond the binary, and Solomon’s writing has been mentioned in the same breath as Octavia Butler, which is a massive accomplishment in and of itself. Solomon is definitely one to keep an eye on, especially for fans of speculative fiction.