Today I have a bit of an unusual and exciting guest post to share with you. I'm always looking for interesting premises in the books that have tours and promo events that cross through my inbox. I was quite intrigued by the fantasy tale, THE TITHE's, concept. So I visited author, Elle Hill's, website to gather some ideas for a potential guest post and read a blog post she had recently written, VISUAL SHORTCUTS THAT CUT, and was very pleased with it. In particular the line
"As I’ve written about before, I’m pretty devoted to making sure I represent under-represented physicalities, and I particularly delight in subverting traditional physical tropes."Because an area I feel that many writers fail is this. I've always felt that there wasn't enough diversity in both visual media formats but more personally I've been bothered by it in fiction. I like seeing people of all colors, shapes and sizes, abilities and disabilities, etc. getting representation. Because don't we ALL deserve to find characters that we can relate to? And more so... isn't it important that through these mediums we are able to find kinship with people who are different from ourselves?
And so I jotted off some notes for the tour guest post....
I'm not sure if Elle is familiar with it but the new season of American Horror Story has a focus on freak show culture and they've been releasing video about the people they've hired to play their freaks that has been very interesting and moving to me. As a few episodes will have been aired by the time of her guest spot on my blog and her book features characters with illnesses and disabilities (what drew me to helping promote it to begin with) I thought a topic with a similar approach might be enjoyable.
Why make these characters her heroes? Can she introduce us to any of them? Does she feel representation of such characters is too often in the same manner she mentions in the aforementioned blog post she wrote?
So firstly, I want to thank Elle for taking the time to write this response and secondly I want to thank YOU my dearest Rhireaders for taking the time to see what interesting stuff she had to say... I decided to leave it uncut because I liked it as is. ;)
Thanks for your thoughtful questions and helpful points. And hey, special thanks for the kindness and flattery! :) I’m hoping you’ll be all right with me responding directly to the points in your letter, rather than trying to carve out a blog post that meanders through all these questions. Feel free to chop up this letter as needed or send it back to me for some authorly revising.
I'm not sure if Elle is familiar with it but the new season of American Horror Story has a focus on freak show culture and they've been releasing video about the people they've hired to play their freaks that has been very interesting and moving to me.
I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with this show. I don’t engage very much with non-literary media, in part because I’ve read a lot of studies about the horrific effects of visual media on women’s senses of selves. However, I watched season one and part of season two of AHS. I have three criteria that all my tasty media tidbits must meet: 3. The medium must feature at least some non-stereotypical and diverse characters (including passing the Bechdel Test), 2. No rape, and 1. No animal may ever be hurt. Never ever. Ever. AHS sports some rocking diversity in it, which fills my heart with rainbows. Featuring a strong, fat woman and non-mockable gay men who use words like “twink” and “gym bunny”? Pure television gold. Aaaaand then the show hinged its plot on the rape of a woman, or at least it did in seasons one and two. I mean, a sensitive rendering of sexual assault I can handle, but when it becomes the titillating, driving force of the entire series, the rainbows in my heart fade away. So, in spite of the brilliant writing and the amazing representation of queer and fat characters in the show, I stopped watching it.
All that said, I love the notion of freaks. LOVE. A lot of my poetry and academic research deals with the image of the monster, including the terror, fascination, and possibilities of transformation that it literally embodies. Freak culture fascinates me.
Why make these characters her heroes?
As The Tithe says in its dedication: “To all people with differing physical and mental appearances and capacities. We deserve a story in which we’re the heroes.”
Truth is, I’m tired of reading about characters who don’t look and think like my loved ones and me. Since I’m a writer and the god of my own, tiny, made-up universes (it’s good to be queen!), I realized I have the power to, as the way-overused quote* says, be the change I want to see in the world.
Yeah, I know romance novels exist to provide us with escape pods from our dull, non-HEA lives. This is why sheroes’ flaxen hair so often billows in the breeze and heroes’ pecs are pronounced enough to carve open cans of green beans. But, you know, I like my fantasy with some reality sprinkled in. I want to interact with people who look and act like, you know, people.
Plus, imagine media that truly represent us, rather than idealized versions of us. That might cut down on some of those negative effects of media exposure I mentioned above, amiright?
Can she introduce us to any of them?
Why yes, yes I can, and thanks for asking! Joshua Barstow, The Tithe’s main character, is a 20-year-old library caretaker with Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome. This means she deals with some degeneration of the nerves in her feet and legs, which makes for difficult and extremely painful walking. Josh almost always feels pain.
The Tithe covers a lot of ground, but Josh’s character arc includes her coming to terms with her dis/ability. In the beginning, she is deeply ashamed of her “wonky legs,” which includes hammer toes and high arches, and understandably feels unhappy with the pain she constantly experiences. As the story progresses, she begins to deal with her difference and to understand herself as a product of it.
Blue, Josh’s love interest, has experienced blindness since birth. Deciding how this would affect his social interactions, his perceptions – heck, even the metaphors he uses to describe things – provided a happy challenge for me. And no, his blindness isn’t symbolic of anything. In fact, blindness is, just as being sighted is. Below is one of my favorite exchanges in the book.
“Are you blind?” Izel asked Blue. Josh stopped walking.
“Yes,” he said.
“Blind means you can’t see.”
“What’s it like to not see?”
And this was why children scared her. What would she do if one of them asked her about her legs or even wanted to see her feet? Josh shuddered.
“I don’t know,” Blue said. “What’s it like not to smell the color purple?”
A confused silence followed. “Colors don’t smell,” the other girl finally pointed out.
“Maybe they do and you don’t know,” Blue said. “You don’t miss it because you don’t know what it’s like. My blindness is the same way. I was born not knowing what it means to see, so I don’t miss it.”
Does she feel representation of such characters is too often in the same manner she mentions in the aforementioned blog post she wrote?
Yes. Oh, yes. However, let me rephrase the question very slightly, since I almost never find representations of non-normatively-able-bodied peeps in media. When I do, they’re almost always using a wheelchair, which is visually striking but only one tiny fraction of the ability spectrum. Other than that, and a romance novel I read 15 or so years ago that featured a deaf shero, the absence of non-able-bodied characters screams much more loudly in my ears. In fact, if I read another story about a fiery, petite redhead shero with blazing green eyes who meets (probably via a stumble of some sort that ends with her in his arms) a tall, chiseled, brooding and arrogant hero, I may have to throw myself out my office window. Luckily, it’s on the ground floor, but still.
Even just sticking with the romance genre of books, we find characters who consistently embody beauty ideals. They’re not only young, able-bodied, perfectly gendered, and light-skinned**, but they’re several step beyond “normal” and into ideal. Their eyes are lighter, their body frames exaggerated (smaller if they’re female, more muscular if they’re male), their fashion sense impeccable. I realize it can be fun to project ourselves into these avatars and pretend for a moment we, too, embody these ideals, but what happens when we come back to our non-ideals bodies and lives?
This is why I write characters that are a little more real. Not only do I want to be able to relate to these characters, but isn’t it part of my duty as a creator and purveyor of popular culture to leave my readers feeling better about themselves?
Creating diverse characters is absolutely a political as well as personal project.
Thanks again for coming to know me and for valuing my projects as a writer. I am excited to have made your acquaintance.
* That is falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.
** Even the non-White romances I’ve read have typically featured light-skinned, light-eyed characters. I’m currently reading a paranormal romance book with a blue-eyed, half-Native American hero. Sigh.
Every seven years, the towns sacrifice their sick and disabled. No one has ever survived the angels’ harvest. Until now.
“Every seven years, seven persons from each of the ten towns must go into the desert, where they will enter into the realm of Elovah, their God.”
No one knows exactly what happens to these seventy Tithes, but everyone knows who: the “unworkables,” those with differing physical and mental capacities. Joshua Barstow, raised for twenty years among her town’s holy women, is one of these seventy Tithes. She is joined by the effervescent Lynna, the scholarly Avery, and the amoral Blue, a man who has spent most of his life in total solitude.
Each night, an angel swoops down to take one of their numbers. Each night, that is, except the first, when the angel touches Josh… and leaves her. What is so special about Josh? She doesn’t feel special; she feels like a woman trying to survive while finally learning the meanings of friendship, community, and love.
How funny that she had to be sacrificed to find reasons to live.
Josh shook her head. “It sounds so sad.”“It wasn’t. You can’t have sadness unless you know happiness. I knew neither.”They sat in silence for a few minutes.Finally, in a voice mere decibels from a whisper, Josh asked, “What about now?” Shameless, she knew, but maybe voicing the question would exorcise it.“Why are you asking a question you already know the answer to?” he asked in his inflectionless voice.“I don’t,” she insisted.“Everything changed when you touched me,” he said.After a confused moment, and with many darting glances, she asked in a low tone, “In bed?”“In the hallway. You touched me, and my life cleaved into a before and a now. Before, I existed, and it was fine. I was content. And then, you. Everything cracked open, and I felt as if I’d just reminded my senses to function. Now, everything feels so raw. Sometimes just the passing of time abrades my skin. Being with you is exquisite and real. And painful.”Very carefully, Josh put her hands on her knees and leaned forward. She stared at the wall opposite them, against which Taro no longer pressed himself. In she breathed, and out. In and out.Josh straightened her posture and rubbed her calf with her other foot. “What can I do to make it hurt less?” she asked him.Blue’s lips thinned into a smile. “I don’t want it to hurt less. Every second that scrapes my skin is another one I spend with you.”
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AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Born in Idaho during the height of disco, Elle Hill now chicken-pecks at the keyboard while rocking out to Donna Summer and KC and the Sunshine Band. She worked in Idaho for several years as a secretary and journalist before moving to California and selling her soul to academia. After receiving her PhD in Sociology, Elle Hill became a not-so-mild-mannered college instructor by night and a community activist during the remainder of her waking hours. Always a journalist and writer at heart, one of her favorite pastimes includes publishing commentary on the political and social state of the world; some of her thoughts are posted on her blog at ellehillauthor.blogspot.com.
Elle welcomes visitors to her website at www.ellehill.com. She also urges everyone to become a superhero and adopt their next non-human companion from a local animal shelter.