Born in South America, Karin Lowachee was raised near Toronto and has lived in the sub-Arctic community of Rankin Inlet for nine months. Her first novel Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel contest, and it was also short-listed for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Prix Aurora Award. Her current novel Cagebird was short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award for 2005.
Lyda Morehouse: As a lesbian reader, I spent much of Cagebird feeling very sad for Yuri, the gay geisha pirate captain. Jos, from Warchild, though much more asexual, leads a typically queer double-life. What compels you to write such tragic queer stories?
Karin Lowachee: I don't think of them as queer stories; I didn't go into writing them with that as a conscious metaphor. I suppose if I had to label anything (which I don't like to do very much) I would call the stories (of the characters, when it comes to emotions) ambiguous and ambivalent. They aren't locked into one thing or another, and the issue of sexual orientation isn't an issue as a whole among many of the characters (there still is prejudice and it's alluded to, but it's not as much of one as it is today). I don't think of any of the characters as gay, really, and Jos's hesitation about sexual matters had to do with his history of abuse and general mistrust of people. I'm compelled to write emotional stories with as much truth as I can, building on the psychology of each individual character who is influenced by the events in his life and the people around him. To me, that inherent complication of influences propels my characters to be who they are, but what they are isn't anything I draw a box around. To me, they just are.
LM: Okay, color me stunned. You must be channeling a past life as a gay man, because one of the reasons I felt that Cagebird, in particular, was such a moving book, was because of how accurately I felt you portrayed the isolation and loneliness of growing up queer.
KL: I'm not queer so to a certain practical extent I can't speak specifically from that experience. But that said, I don't think you need to be queer in order to feel or understand any sense of isolation or loneliness. I think those are emotions that many people feel growing up for one reason or another (and that is probably intensified especially in adolescence because of the psychological, emotional, physical changes that youths go through), and my books and characters just place them in often extreme circumstances. But the foundation of the emotion is still relatable, it's just a matter of degrees.
LM: Details of Yuri's interactions, even his cutting—no, especially his cutting, really resonated for me as someone who realizes that what he craves, who he loves, hurts him.
KL: His reactions or responses, though, are also "typical" of trauma victims. Cutting is a coping mechanism (and is not in fact an attempt to commit suicide, but rather the opposite), and sleepwalking can also be that as well, or some sort of manifestation of an emotional/psychological issue. Yuri started to cut after killing Bo-Sheng, because after the killing he shut down. He felt himself emotionally dying (well, really, it started earlier but became a crisis after his rape and then murdering Bo-Sheng). More subtle symptoms manifested early on, from the point of his colony's destruction, and came to a head in the murder. And after that, cutting, sleepwalking, all of these other things were heavy coping mechanisms in a life he felt he could not leave. I hope to be really careful in how I build the psychologies of my characters, because they are all, in their individual ways, dealing with trauma. These are issues that don't just appear and disappear depending on the scene. They are always there and show up in often subtle ways, and accumulate over time into something that is probably pretty complex, as people tend to be. I hope it doesn't sound like equivocation to say that Yuri's reasons for doing anything or acting a certain way are usually not just one or two things. They're an accumulation of a few things that manifest in a multitude of ways.
LM: I defended you to another reader, by saying that it makes sense that Yuri falls in love with his captors if you read him as gay.
KL: But also if you just read him as a traumatized child who was emotionally manipulated when he was most vulnerable. Stockholm Syndrome, I mean. Of course that's not all it is, either. No amount of manipulation, I believe, would've made Jos become as attached to anyone on that crew as Yuri became. Different personalities respond differently to things, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to deal with Yuri, too. He's not Jos, though on the outside it seems he went through similar things.
LM: This is the precise issue that the other reader had with Yuri. She read the book like you intended it—with Yuri simply the result of his circumstances (and not as "born," if you will, gay.) Since I totally didn't read it way, I can only hope to paraphrase her issues. My sense was that she felt you'd done a kind of disservice to abused kids out there by making it "okay" for Yuri to love Estienne. I don't know if you even want to respond to that, but given that was kind of your intent...?
KL: I'm again stymied by her response, because if she would do some reading or talking to abused people, it's not uncommon for them to develop emotions for their abusers, depending on circumstances, which is what makes it even more painful and difficult to come to terms with, as there becomes a sense of self-blame ("I must have wanted it."). Yuri knows eventually that what Estienne did was wrong, he flings it into Estienne's face, but by then his emotions are so tangled by it. He was manipulated from the get-go. These situations are complicated and even more so for Yuri who was not "simply" in a domestic situation—he was groomed. I would tell that reader to beware of black and white answers for the sake of a politically correct standpoint or the easy out. I have had readers who have either come from similar backgrounds or have worked with kids with these backgrounds write to me and not one of them thought I did abused children a disservice. I would take such a charge very seriously, because it certainly was not my intent and I am sensitive to the real pain that these kids experience. I drew the idea of Estienne training Yuri like that because it goes on in the child slave trade or even just among street kids—older boys are set by predators to recruit younger boys and train them "in the trade." They become both protector and, in reality, abuser. It's a depressing situation all around, propagating abuse and hurt. And Yuri and Estienne's "relationship" is ultimately that—one of abuse and hurt. Even with love mixed in there.
LM: But to me, clearly the only other person on that ship who is gay is Estienne...
KL: This is interesting to me to read the points of view. Readers really do bring and take away what they will from a book, even if the author didn't consciously intend the same. Estienne to me isn't gay at all. He's ambiguous. He's trained. And then he also happens to fall in love with his charge, but it was tainted by his own manipulation. His emotions were real, but also twisted. When it came down to it, he would sell Yuri out for Falcone. I don't think he even realized where his true emotions started and Falcone's orders ended.
LM: ...and it's also clear to me that Yuri loves him. Despite everything that happens.
KL: Yuri does. But that was Falcone's intent too, from the beginning. Because Falcone realized after Jos that pure fear was not going to work, and he didn't want his protégé to be in love with him, that would be a hindrance. Better to have him attach to someone else that Falcone could later use as leverage. He and Estienne worked in tandem to shape Yuri, and it was a lot of premeditation. But Yuri doesn't know this. He sees real kindness and care and someone willing to give him what he wants. What child doesn't respond to that? And then it becomes a bond situation that even when he's older and knows better, he still can't quit it. Because the foundation has been laid.
LM: Falcone is just sick, which is something else queer folks have to deal with—sometimes what you need happens to be another man's kink.
KL: Falcone is based on the tactics of warlords and child exploiters, with my imagination thrown in to fill the gaps. I really honestly don't know the "world" of queer people or their experiences in any sort of detail.
I can volunteer and tell you that sometimes when I get responses from people who are offended because they say that Falcone is gay and evil and it's a bad representation...I'm stymied, because Falcone isn't gay, he's a predator. I think there is a real danger in equating predators with sexual orientation. Not that you are here, but I thought to volunteer the comment because it's been something I've been accused of and I find it a little myopic.
LM: I never read Falcone as gay. A predator, yes. A predator with a penchant for pretty, young boys, yes. You can't deny that Falcone plays with the deep-seated homophobia young boys (and probably all your readers, even the queer ones) have.
KL: He does, yes. That's part of his plan.
LM: He repeatedly tells Jos how beautiful he is, especially when torturing him. Did you worry about that? There's a tiny bit of titillation factor going on there that set off my slash-o-meter. (Do you know what I mean by that?)
KL: I worried that people would gloss over things, yeah, when I was trying to depict him as reprehensible but at the same time very calculated, conscious, intelligent, to the point that on the outside and to his own mind, it makes perfect sense what he's doing. His logic is completely twisted. To him, there is no such thing really as innocence in the war, so then what is he ruining? I didn't want to write any of those more sensitive scenes as titillation. I'd prefer it if people were totally creeped out, uncomfortable, and disgusted by it. As I was to write it. But Falcone uses those words as titillation, on purpose, so it was a fine line to skate for me the writer.
LM: If you're not intentionally writing Yuri as gay, why are all the significant relationships in his life with men?
KL: Because that's the way Falcone set it up, and Falcone is somewhat of a misogynist so it's his twist. Women hold equal sway in my universe, just not necessarily always with Falcone. But he also made sure Yuri knew how to deal with women, and Yuri actually trusts Rika the most outside of Estienne's sphere.
LM: Why are you writing so much about men, in general? And, if they're not queer, haven't men had their day in science fiction? Where are the important women?
KL: I don't think men like mine have had their day at all.
Men in SF, and especially in military SF, have usually been these macho survivors who conquer and go on. They are rarely portrayed as emotionally fragile or psychologically damaged in the long term, or especially exploited. If they are "victims," in any way, they are usually with different parameters. Yet in this world, the real world, there are boys being exploited in slave trade or pushed into conflicts, and their voices don't get as readily heard, perhaps, as women, because of a certain shame factor and image that people have of men and how they should act.
One interviewer asked me if I was "interrogating masculinity in science fiction" and I suppose that is the best way to describe what I'm doing by using male protagonists for these three books. They are all "victimized" and in some ways ambiguous sexually, but unlike what the common assumption might be about men in these "roles," I don't think my guys are ultimately helpless, weak, effeminate, or any of those things people might want to readily paint because of their own opinions of victimized men.
The central character in all of these books, and Falcone's antithesis, is Captain Azarcon. He embodies characteristics of all three protagonists and I like to think is unusual in the military SF or space opera genre. He is capable, authoritarian, ruthless...but compassionate, traumatized, fragile in his way, and was once, very clearly, in the shoes of Yuri and Jos. He is a survivor as well, and not just of battles with aliens. His trauma and Falcone's legacy of abuse still follow him in the way his marriage broke down, in the way he treats his son, his crew, and the war itself.
I chose the voices to be specifically of young men because I honestly did not see young men like this being written, not in military SF or space opera, and these voices seemed to come out strongest and to compliment my avid interest in writing about the effects of war and exploitation of children—which is, also, a disenfranchised voice that I do not see too much of in this genre either. Not children who are this flawed and remain, in a lot of ways, still flawed. The points of view are so firmly fixed in the heads of these kids that the opinions and greater picture of the universe and all of the politics is filtered through their eyes and their experiences—just as I think it would be, and is, in this world. The opinions of children are so pure, and so is their trauma in these situations, and I wanted—ultimately—to treat that with as much respect and realism as possible.
LM: I should say that for me one of the strengths of Cagebird is the authenticity of voice.
KL: Thank you so much. I feel very strongly about having distinctive voices, especially when writing in first person.
LM: I think you do men well...at least from my perspective, as a woman. What have your male colleagues said about your writing, if anything?
KL: They don't flag anything either, which amazes me. Some guys might, but I seem to have an equality of male and female readers and 99% of them seem to have no issues with it at all.
LM: I think itís very laudable to want to give real boys a real voice. Currently, thatís a hot button issue in parenting (I have a two-year-old son), this idea that menís emotional lives have been given a short shaft.
KL: That's interesting, yeah, I've come across some articles and things about that, how people are re-examining male emotional lives.
LM: Is there something specific driving you other than what you mentioned above?
KL: Men are "the other" to me. I'm not a man. So it's also a writerly challenge for me to write these specific characters and make them believable. I'm drawn to psychologies, to the psyche, and I'm fascinated by how men handle these situations as opposed to women, because it seems they do internalize it differently in some ways—speaking of abuse, trauma, and those types of issues. I read quite a bit about that when writing Jos. The trick is to meld that into the personality of the character.
LM: One of the reasons Iím so curious about this issue is that as a fan of science fiction myself, I ended up spending a lot of my youth reading books with male protagonists. To the point that when I played pretend, I wanted to be the boy. Now, granted, there may have been something else going on with me, given that I grew into a lesbian, but I remember when I sat down to write my first novel thinking that what I wanted to do was give a voice to girls like me who loved hard-core SF/space opera, but who didnít see themselves there.
KL: I guess I didn't gender identify, in the sense that I was just interested in there being cool stories and interesting characters, and I didn't care if they were guys or girls. I could relate to both emotionally. And guys always fascinated me, so I loved reading about them. :)
LM: Of course, when I was young the womenís SF movement was really only just starting. Now there are any number of books with female leads. What were some of your early, defining SF/F moments?
KL: C.J. Cherryh. Before that I was heavily into the novel adaptations of the anime series Robotech...which sounds cheesy, but I loved the characters, there was a real sense of drama and sadness to this long, drawn-out war. But before science fiction my favorite book (and it still is one of my all-time favorites) is The Outsiders by SE Hinton. I didn't get into adult science fiction until high school, so it's been pretty recent.
LM: Are you writing against anything (or any one book) in particular?
KL: You mean as a response to a certain book or author? No, not at all. I write the kinds of books I would love to read, and try not to pay too much attention to what others are doing, in the sense that this isn't a competition for me or a fight in any way. Everyone has different reasons for writing what they write, and they're entitled to how they write. I have to be intensely interested in something to spend 500 pages exploring it, and that has to come from within, as interests go, not without. :]
LM: I guess that leads me to the more standard interview questions. When did you get the writing bug? Was Warchild your first professional sale? Tell me the story of winning the Warner Aspect First Novel contest.
KL: I've been writing since kindergarten, in one form or another. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of banging away on a typewriter making up stories of how my stuffed animals came to life. I've always written and drawn pictures (oftentimes to illustrate my stories). Warchild was my first novel sale, but I'd sold a short story before to a Canadian anthology when I was in university, and won some smaller writing awards here and there. The story of the Warner Aspect contest is pretty straightforward. They ran a contest in 2000, I believe, for first novels. I submitted mine and within the year I'd found out I won, had the contract, etc., etc. It's such a great opportunity for young writers who are unpublished and without an agent. Nalo Hopkinson was the first winner, I was the second.
LM: What made you decide to become a writer?
KL: It's what I love and the only thing I have the patience (and some modicum of talent) for.
LM: Do you write full-time?
KL: As of right now, but I wasn't when I won the contest. That'll probably change.
LM: When you're not a writer, what are you?
KL: I'm going to be a punk and say I am never not a writer.
LM: What have you done for a living?
KL: I've taught, done administrative work, and other boring things. Not the teaching, I loved teaching.
LM: What would you like to do, if you have to go back?
KL: Teach. And I might very well go back. But I keep my future options to myself for the most part; it's not anything anyone needs to know outside of my family and friends.
LM: Have you thought about writing in other genres?
KL: Yeah, and I have written in other genres, just not published anywhere. It goes back to me and boxes and how I don't like them, while I still recognize they serve a purpose. But being forced into wearing just one hat doesn't sit well with me, since writing is expression to me and I don't like limits on how I express things.
LM: What are you working on now?
KL: A new idea but I also don't like to talk too much about works so early in their stages. It's another SF novel, though.