Neopronouns in Speculative Fiction: A Workshop

Updated June 6, 2018

I taught my first workshop at WisCon 42! I expected maybe five people to show up, and I got closer to 20. ( ゚д゚) The workshop appears to have been well-received, and many people requested the materials. So here’s an overview of the workshop as I conducted it on Friday.

Workshop Description

Neopronouns in Speculative Fiction: A Writing Workshop | Fri, 4:00–6:00 pm, CIRC | #WisConWorkshops
S. Qiouyi Lu (moderator)

Recent high-profile works in speculative fiction, such as JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven and Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, include prominent nonbinary characters that use they/them pronouns. However, singular they isn’t the only option for gender-neutral pronouns—as early as 1976, Marge Piercy used the invented pronoun, or neopronoun, “per” in Woman on the Edge of Time. This workshop, led by nonbinary writer and editor S. Qiouyi Lu, will explore the history of neopronouns, discuss examples drawn from speculative fiction, and provide participants a welcoming space to draft their own work that uses neopronouns.

Introductions

I asked participants to introduce themselves with their name, pronouns, and the reason why they’re participating in the workshop. This helps me gauge the general background level of the participants and tailor my instruction to their needs.

Most of the participants were writers who were interested in featuring nonbinary characters; several of the writers were not nonbinary, but there were also nonbinary participants as well. I anticipate that, if I teach this workshop again in the future, audiences will be similarly mixed.

Neopronoun Basics

Since the audience was mixed, I wanted to cover some basics so that our understandings were on the same page and everyone was up to speed. I made sure to emphasize:

  1. Being nonbinary includes a wide range of experiences. Broadly defined, “nonbinary” means experiencing gender outside of the traditional poles of “man” and “woman.” That can mean feeling a mixture of both binary genders, any degree of absence of both or either binary gender, or another gender experience altogether divorced from any conception of binary gender.
  2. Not all nonbinary people use neopronouns or even gender-neutral pronouns. Some nonbinary people may choose to use pronouns like she/her, which is also a legitimate expression of their identity. A nonbinary person or character may choose to use a neopronoun or not.
  3. A “neopronoun” is, in the context of this workshop, a third-person singular pronoun that is not “he,” “she,” “they,” or “it.”

I pointed people to the Pronoun Dressing Room, which is a great resource both to explore what neopronouns are out there, as well as to dynamically try on pronouns for yourself or a character.

I also briefly gave a timeline of neopronoun usage in speculative fiction. As far as I know, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, published in 1976, is the first usage of a neopronoun in anglophone speculative literature. Another notable landmark is Nearly Roadkill, by Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan, published in 1996. Neopronoun usage appears to have mostly picked up after 2010 or so. I provided a printout of my Neopronouns in Speculative Fiction list as reference for other works to read.

Update: Bogi Takács notes that Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, published in 1971, uses kin pronouns and predates Woman on the Edge of Time. Please visit eir Big Trans and Intersex Fiction and Poetry Timeline for more information on early neopronoun use toward the bottom of the page.

Readings

I printed three readings for this workshop:

I chose these particular readings for several reasons:

  1. They’re short. Since this was an open workshop session and I couldn’t contact students beforehand to assign readings, I wanted pieces that people could get through in one sitting at the workshop. If I were able to contact students before the workshop, I might assign longer pieces to read on the students’ own time.
  2. They approach neopronoun use from different angles, both in terms of setting/worldbuilding and the amount of work that the reader is expected to do. “Curiosity Fruit Machine” is implied to be a future Earth setting where neopronouns are common; the reader gets no explanation for the neopronouns. By contrast, “Grow Green” is set in a secondary world, and the neopronouns get a few lines of clear explanation. “The Handcrafted Motions of Flight” straddles a middle ground between those poles.
  3. They also approach gender and how relevant it is to the story from different angles. “Curiosity Fruit Machine” makes no comment on gender. “The Handcrafted Motions of Flight,” meanwhile, is clear and explicit with its treatment of gender, which becomes a central conflict in the piece. “Grow Green” does engage gender, but it’s more of a secondary thread to the main plot of the piece.

I had students discuss the readings afterward. It wasn’t too chatty of a crowd, so I prompted with a few questions:

  1. What effect did the use of neopronouns have on the piece for you?
  2. What was your reaction to the neopronoun use?

Several people said that it was initially jarring to read the neopronouns. I noted that, linguistically, things like nouns and verbs are open classes: it’s common and easy to add new words. However, through most, if not all, languages, other categories like prepositions and pronouns are closed classes: it’s more difficult to add new words. But it’s still possible to do so and gets easier with practice.

Several people had also said in their introductions that they came to the workshop to strengthen their rebuttals to people who try to argue against neopronouns. I made sure to emphasize here that people will often target neopronouns when they use respectability politics arguments. Whether cis or trans, some people feel that using neopronouns will harm the cause and make it more difficult for people to take nonbinary people seriously. But, in my opinion, it’s not up to nonbinary people to be acceptable to some standard; it’s up to cisnormative society to change its rules and expectations.

I also had a question about how neopronoun usage intersects with accessibility: some people with language processing difficulties or who are learning English as a second language may find neopronouns particularly hard to use. I do want to note that English is not the only language that uses neopronouns; Spanish, Chinese, and Swedish also have some neopronoun traditions. However, I didn’t have a clear answer for this question and would love to see pieces on accessibility with neopronouns with regards to disability.

Writing Exercises

I had students write from a third-person point of view for a character who uses neopronouns; they could use the neopronouns in the readings if they weren’t already familiar with sets. Since the audience also included readers who didn’t tend to write fiction, I made sure to provide a brief definition of the term “third-person point of view” so they’d have a solid foundation for what to do. I didn’t require them to write on a certain topic, but prompted with “a day in the life of your character” if people needed one.

I opened the floor to sharing pieces if people wanted to, but emphasized that that would be entirely voluntary. In the future, I would not do that, but would rather do this exercise prefaced with the note that the pieces will not be read aloud or critiqued, as my intent with this exercise is more to get people used to writing with neopronouns, rather than to provide any craft critique.

I opened the floor to discussion about the writing exercise. My discussion questions included:

  1. What did you like about using neopronouns?
  2. How was using neopronouns different from using traditional pronouns?
  3. Did you encounter any difficulties? What kinds of difficulties?

Many people noted that they wrote more slowly with neopronouns and had to constantly reference the readings to make sure they were getting the cases right. I affirmed that experience and noted that neopronoun usage does begin to feel more natural with more practice.

Another student noted that slippage with pronoun also happens. I affirmed that this was something that happens to me as well, particularly when a character’s presentation is different from what’s expected of their gender. I reminded students that, whether in real life or in writing fiction, making mistakes happens. When you use the wrong pronoun, the important thing is to correct your mistake, apologize if you’re speaking to someone (as simple as “she, sorry, I meant they”), and move on while being more mindful of pronoun usage in the future.

I had a second writing exercise prepared as well: Write from the point of view of a character (who may or may not use neopronouns) interacting with or describing another character who uses neopronouns. I didn’t actually do this writing exercise during the workshop (mostly for fear of boring people, really), but I would with the next one, as I’m not actually sure how different the writing experiences are.

Open Discussion

I then opened the workshop to general questions, concerns, comments, etc. The questions mainly fell under a few general themes:

How do I do right by nonbinary characters and people if I’m not nonbinary myself?

I noted that, in my experience, nonbinary readers bounce off a narrative when it conflates separate concepts, such as:

  • Gender and presentation: Gender is an internal experience. Of course, society reacts and interacts with people in ways that include gender, but the way a person identifies is an invisible, internal thing. When binary writers have, for example, characters who can change genders and use different pronouns, they often conflate gender change and pronoun change with a change in the character’s body or presentation. But gender can change internally without an external change, or can remain static internally while the external expression changes.
  • Gender and biology: I would say that there might be biological things that influence gender, but, for the most part, gender as a concept is separate from biology. Conflating gender identity with biology is a cissexist narrative that ignores the reality of how people experience gender.

I noted that the standard advice of having sensitivity readers (and multiple sensitivity readers, if possible) applies here, as well as the standard “do your research” spiel. I recommended finding first-person accounts on gender experiences; for example, while I haven’t read many of their pieces myself, I believe Them magazine appears to be publishing many nuanced, in-group pieces on gender.

How do I bolster my own confidence in my work if I am nonbinary?

I had a couple of responses to this question:

  • Someone has to be the first. If you want to include pronouns with your character list preface, but you’re not sure because you haven’t seen someone do it before, do it anyway.
  • But, at the same time, you might not be the first! I put together my neopronouns list because I wanted precedent and permission to use them myself and found that I wasn’t the only one who’d had the idea, and that previous work had been published. Neopronoun use seems to be getting more popular.
  • Editorial rejection usually isn’t a reflection on your work. Editorial taste is highly individual. Some editors don’t like neopronouns, just like some editors don’t like second-person point of view, or some editors simply don’t like nonbinary people. Magazines like Uncanny and Shimmer have reaffirmed that they have no problems with neopronouns, so the markets and the magazines are out there.

How do I ensure that my nonbinary character(s) are embedded in community and not tokenized?

I treat community for characters like family. Many writers take the shortcut of writing dead parents simply because they don’t want to deal with characters’ families. I pushed back against that and advised people to consider why a person does or does not have community: was it purposeful estrangement? Accidental isolation? Or are they very embedded in community? Secondary characters must still have a coherent storyline from their point of view; if they only ever serve to support a main character’s story, that’s likely a sign that they’re not very well-developed.

I believe that covers the content of the workshop—my notes are sparse, so I may come back to fill things in that I missed.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. If you’d like me to teach this workshop at your event, or if you’d like to teach or adapt this workshop yourself, please contact me.