But I Am, Or I Was: Gender in "Her Sacred Spirit Soars"

I just received news that my short story “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” made it on the Tiptree award longlist! I am so excited about this. I’ve been on a longlist before—my translation of “Chimera” by Gu Shi with Ken Liu was on the Hugo longlist for novellas last year—but this is the first time a piece of my own has been longlisted for anything.

I’ve been fascinated by the response to this piece. I drafted it as part of the short story course taught by K. Tempest Bradford that I took back in fall/winter of 2015. The first draft bore absolutely no resemblance to the final draft and was a mess—but drafting is the topic of another post. The second draft was halfway between that first draft and the final version: it had elements that remain in the final draft, such as the body-swapping and experimentation angles, but also pieces that didn’t make it, including an escape from the institution and a passage that explored both characters’ nonbinariness.

I had solidified my identity as nonbinary by the time I wrote this story. In fact, I would probably trace the solidification of my nonbinariness back to around the end of 2014 or so. Before then, however, I was actively questioning my identity and wondering how valid my experience was. So, while “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” did not lead to any new discoveries about my gender, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me trying to incorporate my nonbinary gender into my fiction.

Here are excerpts of the scene in the second draft that was workshopped but later removed:

A screenreader-accessible version of the screenshots is available on Pastebin. Looking back at the actual comments and my critique notes, I notice that no one actually suggested that I remove the scene. If there was any pushback, it was mostly that it didn’t have enough context.

Yet I have a strong recollection that people commented that the scene came out of left-field. Perhaps that was me projecting my own feelings onto the critique, my own doubts, my reluctance to defend something that felt so precarious to me at the time. Note that I didn’t even use the term “nonbinary” or any analogous terms in the text—rereading it, it almost feels to me as if I were hedging the writing myself, too hesitant to say anything about identity outright.

So I cut the scene and revised the story. I don’t know if I regret that move—I think the final product is stronger than this second draft and feels more cohesive and streamlined.

What fascinates me, though, is the fact that this story has been read as a trans narrative by multiple people, to the point where Bogi Takács selected it for Transcendent 2, a year’s best anthology of trans fiction. And note a key element of the book’s theme: the anthology only contains fiction that includes some variety of trans/nonbinary/genderqueer representation; it doesn’t matter whether the author identifies as trans.

And today, I received the Tiptree news. The Tiptree Award is not just for fiction that explores trans/nonbinary/genderqueer themes, but gender as a whole: there are certainly works that have won or been short/longlisted that explore only, for example, cis womanhood.

But I don’t think I did any particularly heavy lifting exploring womanhood in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.” Which brings me back to the trans/nonbinary nature of this story. When I was writing it, I certainly didn’t intend to explore gender, and if a cis person were to come up to me and tell me that body-swapping is representative of a trans narrative, my reaction would be a polite, “lolwut?” However, when trans people tell me they read the body-swapping as a metaphor, or the entire piece as a trans narrative? Then I feel there’s more to dig into.

I had originally drafted this post as a thread on Twitter, but Safari crashed and lost what I’d written. I was originally angling for a “the author is dead, long live the reader” angle, but, in exploring the thematic content of “Her Sacred Spirit Soars,” I realized that, yeah, I see it.

It’s trans as hell.

Obviously, there’s the explicit nature of the bird–human bodyswap that can be read as a kind of transition. Supernatural fandom was very influential on my aesthetic, in particular Thingstiel fandom. In Supernatural, angels have a “trueform” that can’t be perceived by humans without threatening their lives. So, to allow them to approach humans, angels possess vessels, typically portrayed in the TV series as humans. Thingstiel fandom took that possibility further: What if Castiel were water? A tree? Deer?

At the time, I thought it was a cool fantasy concept, but, looking back and seeing other trans fans who identified with the transformative nature of Thingstiel fandom, I realize that it was an aesthetic that resonated with not only my burgeoning nonbinary gender feelings, but also the heavy depersonalization/derealization that I was experiencing as a result of my undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses.

I explicitly explore mental illness in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.” But even without the nonbinary exploration scene from the second draft, I realize in retrospect that I explore being trans in more subtle ways in this piece. A key scene in “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” that acts as one of Meisun’s turning points is when the psychologist representing the psychological establishment insists to her that she is not a bird and must abandon those ghost bird memories in order to live as a human:

“You aren’t a bird, Meisun,” Dr. Roberts says, and anger flares in my chest.

“But I am,” I retort. Then, I doubt myself and add, “Or, I was.”

“Then you aren’t a bird anymore,” Dr. Roberts says, his voice level, and suddenly something shifts within me. “You’re human now, and you live with humans now, all right?”

Part of me resents him, but part of me considers what he says.

I am human.

And maybe humans love differently.

I want to unpack this scene from a trans perspective. Dr. Roberts insists that Meisun must choose: that to be human, she must give up any illusion that she was ever a bird. Within the story, this reaction is a natural extension of the premise of this piece. But I want to tie this back to our world: although I feel this is more visible with binary trans people, nonbinary people also experience the narrative of choosing a side. That we were “born this way.” That we “always knew” that we were trans. That our genders are not “a trend.” We must conform to a certain expectation of gender, a rooted understanding of gender that reflects some trans people’s experiences, but not all.

So I read this story as, in part, the experience of grappling with what my previous experiences mean after I had an awakening about my gender. Because I didn’t always know. I identified for over half of my life as a girl and used she/her pronouns without any issue or question. So what does that mean for me now as a nonbinary person? Do I refer to my past self with the pronouns I use for myself now, even though my past self only ever used she/her pronouns? How do I reconcile that, for me, I am nonbinary, but I used to be a girl? How do I reconcile the misogyny I have experienced (and that I continue to experience) even though “misogyny,” by its nature, refers to a hatred toward women, and I no longer identify as one?

I can’t remember where I read it and would appreciate a link if you have it on hand, but there was a tweet from a straight trans man that I saw the other day talking about how he still, to some degree, identifies with media about queer womanhood because that was his life until only recently. But he’s now a straight man. So where does that leave those experiences?

Medical and psychological establishments want us to put these messy experiences behind us and conform to a certain expectation of gender as solid and unwavering. To some degree, Meisun accepts this and resolves to adhere to Dr. Roberts’ admonishment: “I am human. And maybe humans love differently.”

But, to me, she subverts that expectation in the end:

She’ll never be you, but she’s not meant to. She had no part in them taking away our bond, and if our bond helped her so, was that such a bad thing? Besides, she’s human, and so am I; we’re not meant to be joined together like kimkim. Love for humans means flying side-by-side in the same direction, two separate beings working together.

I catch up to Yaulan and grasp her hand. She turns, surprised, and a grin spreads across her face. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed, but even so, sadness still lingers in her eyes, in the way she holds herself.

But that’s okay. I’m not expecting magic, for us to live happily ever after. All I want is to be beside her and hope for the best.

I lean in and kiss her forehead, and in that moment I think, I love you.

Thanks to Molly Olguín for helping me figure out that that callback to “you” was the clincher for that last line. I want to unpack that, too: because yes, “you” refers to Yaulan here, but the reason why it’s a clincher is because it also refers to the unnamed kimkim that is addressed as “you” throughout the story. So on one hand, this final scene is a reconciliation of grief and loss as well as an understanding that mental illness is chronic and cyclic. But, on the other hand, it’s a rejection of Dr. Roberts insisting that Meisun has to give up her bird memories: instead, she integrates them with her present experience with Yaulan. “You” is both Yaulan and the kimkim, and, to me, that’s what makes the last line work thematically and resonate.

In the end, that’s what trans people do, too. We can’t just erase who we were before. That’s a necessary part of us: ghostly double-exposures where what we experienced was simultaneously true and untrue, where we were still us, and yet different. Of course, time and experience does this to everyone’s recollections, but I think it’s starker for trans people.

So that’s my take. I don’t know why I’m tearing up writing this, but I am, and I tear up sometimes when I reread this story. It still boils down to death of the author for me: art is magic in that the text can remain static, and yet it transforms depending on what interpretation and background the reader brings to it. I did this for Karin Tidbeck with my interpretation of Amatka, and others have done this for me with “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.”

Thank you for reading my story and this response, and thank you again for making the Tiptree longlist nomination happen.