From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

How We Construct Our Society: An Owomoyela

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author An Owomoyela to tell us a bit about the background of this week’s story for Fantasy Magazine, “Of Men and Wolves.”

On your blog, you’ve said that “Of Men and Wolves” is “a story about sex and gender, gods and men, and the destructive forces of politics. Sort of. And wolves.” Could you talk about the different elements and how they intersect?

While attending the University of Iowa, I took a class on gender in historical perspectives. (This is also the class in which “Defective steam-powered circumcision machines” came up as a potential answer in one multiple-choice question. I’ve long since forgotten what the question was, but answers like that stick with you.) One of the cases we learned about involved a set of twins, one of whom suffered a severe burn which destroyed his penis when his circumcision was cauterized. The damage was severe enough that doctors thought the best thing for it was to assign him female (his testes were removed before the age of two) and have his parents raise him that way. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that he began taking female hormones, he developed a male gender identity.

Which is fascinating to me, because it’s one more case of the links between genetics, physiology, socialization and gender being incredibly tangled and hard to interpret. All the way back in the 1910s you had scientists like Eugen Steinach in Vienna experimenting with hormones and gonads in rats and guinea pigs, coming up with the conclusion that if you controlled those, you’d control gendered behavior, which was neatly refuted here. And that’s not even beginning to examine the significant population of people born with the physiology of one sex who develop, despite a lot of people’s attempts to police it, an identity as another gender, and it certainly doesn’t touch on anyone with nonstandard physiologies, be that in genital presence or structure, chromosomal makeup, hormone sensitivity, etc.

Anyone who thinks gendering people is easy should take a look at this interactive challenge. And that’s just for a start.

And yet, defining sex and gender is something people get downright vitriolic about—probably the natural result of having a culture in which gender roles are foundational to a lot of how we construct our society. In “Of Men And Wolves,” we have a whole knot of different problems: The Sal need to marry off a daughter to appease the Odad, so they create a daughter against her will; the Odad consider this to be barely acceptable—one gets the feeling that being attracted to a “made” woman is something to be regarded with more than a little disdain. But the Odad Prince is attracted to her. Which, on the one hand, is good, because it preserves the diplomatic marriage. On the other hand, the main character has to confront the fact that the person she’s being married off to is attracted to the source of her dysphoria.

And then there are the wolves.

And at first glance, the wolves don’t seem to fit into this anywhere, until you realize that their story is the main character’s story, just playing out in a time when the politics were reversed. They also brought a lot of ancillary elements: an added menace, a chance for the main character to interact with someone, and several ethological tics revolving around the loins. (Which is not, I have to admit, a sentence I ever foresaw myself typing.)

This is also a story that’s inextricably laced through with power dynamics. You have gods acting at the behest of kings, people getting changed into things they aren’t at the behest of kings, two tribes pressing their advantages over each other, and the hierarchy of the wolves to go along with it, not to mention the issue of sacrifice which keeps coming up. And it doesn’t look like anyone is happy with the way things worked out.

Your main character is “the fifth son of a royal house who desperately needed daughters to offer in political marriages” in “a culture which says, yes, you’re allowed to convert a child to whatever you need, if you’re royalty.” Was it difficult to develop and write this character, to balance the character’s dsyphoria with external events?

Well, there are different sorts of difficulty involved, here. From a character-development perspective, the character evolved quite naturally from the concept. As someone who doesn’t identify as cisgendered and experiences some level of dysphoria myself, much of how the main character reacted or interacted with her world seemed straightforward to me—just dialed up considerably from what I’m used to. Her situation revolved around her identity, and that required that attention be paid to her dysphoria, which in some ways made my job easier; there was an explicit rather than an implicit reason to dwell on that experience for a while.

And there were the wolves, again. Part of the advice Chuck Palahniuk gave us at Clarion West was to keep narration “on the body,” and anyone who’s lived with dogs knows how bodily their communication gets. Their attention to the main character and their predation of Ishur tied her dysphoria directly into the plot.

What was difficult was getting the emotional impact to the reader. Or, said another way, comprehension was easy; communication was hard. The main character’s dysphoria is a constant presence, and it had to be shown woven directly in with the texture of her life. Finding ways of touching on the small details without bogging down the story was a challenge. I hope I succeeded.

The sentence, “How horrible, to have your body unmade at the order of your king,” seems to capture the essence of your story. Could you speak to that? How great is people’s responsibility, do you think, for fulfilling the will of their kings or their governments? How much responsibility falls on the king or government to protect their people?

Now, that is a question I can’t speak with any grand authority on. I’m not the political one in my family, and to be honest the grand scope of politics and all its many, many nuances somewhat intimidates me.

From an ideological perspective, I’d like to believe that societies are within their rights to demand certain things from their citizens, kings and leaders included. Octavia Butler’s Parable novels put forth the idea that “Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals.” I like that idea—specifically, that for a group to survive, society itself has to be leveraged to the benefit of the group. Leaders are ideally put in place in order to facilitate that.

But at the same time, I don’t like the idea that the freedom and rights of individuals are automatically discarded in the face of the needs of society. I don’t think you can escape the fact that any society is ultimately composed of individuals, and a society which disregards the needs of its individuals in order to focus purely on the abstract “society” is just as problematic as one in which it’s every individual for themselves. It’s a balancing act, as are a lot of things in life, between extremes.

Within the scope of the story, mutilating one child in order to save an entire people might be justified as a necessary evil, though we never see if other options were even considered. I do wonder if the Odad king who sacrificed three-quarters of his people wasn’t missing the point a little, though.

“Of Men and Wolves” was one of your Clarion West stories, and you’ve since revised it several times. Could you tell us about the process of writing it? Did it differ from your other work or do you have a usual process that you follow?

Clarion West was a brilliant environment in that it allowed absolutely no room for excuses. I had to have a story in once a week, every week, without the luxury of a trunk to pull anything but ideas out of. What happened there was that my usual writing process—a long, random process of accreting ideas, expelling them, writing noncontiguous bits in a jumble and trying to tie them all together at the tenth or eleventh hour—got compressed and hyperaccelerated. I had to turn from a literary collage hobbyist to a literary MacGuyver. “You have a character conceit, a compelling turn of phrase, a novice-level grasp on wolf ethology, and a third-act twist. You need a viable story. GO!” In my natural habitat, these take months if not years to resolve themselves. At Clarion West, seven days.

I remember that I was researching wolf ethology for something completely unrelated, and I think this was after one of my brilliant colleagues had turned in a story where a sorcerer had turned his tribe into a desert. The first image from the story I jotted down in my notebook was the fable of how this city came to be, but in that first imagining, the king had lost all of his people—a quarter turned into wolves, a quarter turned into stars, a quarter turned into a river, and the last quarter turned into the city by the river. At which point the wolves moved in and I guess the king just went “Wait, crap,” and was never seen again; the rough fable in my Moleskine didn’t explicate. Maybe he got eaten.

The next bit I wrote down was the “God will eat you” proverb. This was a story which definitely came about as a result of playing with the cultures invented, rather than the characters or plot. There were going to be three tribes, and there was going to be an entire plot about how the City was dying and the stars were going out, and of course the political marriage between the Sal and Odad, and Ishur originally just pitied the main character, which of course raised the question of why he’d agreed to marry her in the first place. Over time, and with the encouragement of my classmates to “find the heart of the story,” I narrowed the scope down to the main character and her relationship with herself and the paradoxes around her. For all that the fate of her people is at stake, “Of Men And Wolves” is a very internal story.

Revising was, as it usually is, a matter of cutting, tightening, and pushing more impact into what I’d already written. The first draft of the story was somewhat self-indulgent and very wandering, not to mention a little too vague on most of the important details. I had to go in and strengthen the parallels, cut down on the time spent at loose ends in the city, ratchet up the tension.

This was Connie Willis’ week, and every day we were being given access to her grand expertise on matters of plot. One of the big takeaway lessons was that “The reader will not be able to stop if they haven’t had their questions answered.” Other points: “Raise interesting questions,” and “Don’t answer all your questions before you raise others.” In the first draft I went too far in that direction, and I had to go back and give people some solid ground to stand on.

All told, it took five drafts to get “Of Men And Wolves” out into the world. The least it’s ever taken me is two. Three or four seems to be most common, but I’m also someone who does a lot of rewriting in the initial process of writing, as well.

In addition to writing, you also sketch. Do you sketch scenes from your own writing? If so, do you have any for “Of Men and Wolves”? If not, do you have a usual subject for your art?

I’ll occasionally sketch from my own writing, but not consistently. Most of what I draw are studies of animals, and usually of animals that don’t exist—my fondness for science fiction and fantasy creatures notwithstanding, there’s a lot less pressure, that way. I don’t have to make them recognizable.

When I was in middle school, I had a game where I’d design fantasy animals for people based on a set of questions: Are the animals carnivorous, omnivorous, herbivorous, lithovorous… Do they live in the sea, in the sky or on land… so on, and so forth. Once they had answered all of these questions, I’d try to imagine what an animal which had all those characteristics would look like, and then draw it. That was how I interacted with a lot of my biology lessons; you’d have predators with forward-facing eyes, and omnivores with very specific teeth structures; short, stocky things that came from high-gravity worlds and long, thin animals optimized for heat dispersion in desert environments. And so on.

I’ve also had a lot of fun in art exchanges—basically, get a lot of novice artists together, have them all submit descriptions of characters, and then randomly assign descriptions to artists. Sort of a Secret Santa for custom artwork. The most fun I ever had there was when I got a request to draw a dragon character inspired by Vivaldi. I was quite happy with how it had turned out until I noticed I’d drawn his violin and grip entirely wrong.

Art is something I do more for fun than for the sake of the craft. Every once in a while I think I’m going to put in the time to become really good at it, and then I realize that I have more stories to write. And writing usually clamors a lot louder for my attention.

Thank you for your time. Before we conclude, could you tell us what is next for you?

“What’s next” is always a dangerous question, because any time I answer it, I put the lie to it three days later. I wander through the body of my work in the same way I wander through individual works: Scenes or stories here or there will catch my eye, and I’ll work on that until something else catches my eye, and sooner or later, something will be finished and I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I have a YA novel in the works; I have a bevy of short stories all clamoring for attention; I’ve been thinking about the logistics of doing a wiki-based work of hyperfiction, loosely inspired by Flightless Hummingbird‘s Synthetic Journal; I have a probably-ill-advised venture into the land of literary fiction lurking somewhere on my USB drive. Which of these will eventually be finished? Will any of them? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

I do know I have a lot more to write on the subject of sex and gender, and especially using characters with transgender identities. The trouble with writing any minority population once is that you run the risk of people reading that one work as the sum of your opinions on the population. It would be easy to read “Of Men And Wolves” and take the message away that “Oh, the main character was born male, and still wanted to be male after he was castrated, so that means you’re going to be what you were born as no matter what,” which is all sorts of incorrect. So barring anything drastic like the collapse of speculative fiction, I’d count on seeing more works on those themes.

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.