Fem: You write both fiction and nonfiction. Are there any differences in your writing processes for each?
B R Sanders: There definitely are. I’m a pretty roll-up-the-sleeves workhorse fiction writer; I write fiction basically every week day on my commute into and out of work on the bus and usually get down 1,000-1,500 words on whatever short story or manuscript I’m working on at the time. That means I generally have a pretty consistent output when it comes to fiction. I have, I think, four shorts and a novella in submission right now along with a novel waiting for revisions from my editor. And I’m very nearly done with the first draft of another novel.
Non-fiction is a different beast for me. That’s much more a muse-based when the mood strikes kind of thing. I blog, but the kind of creative non-fiction that I write and I try to shop around, that is rarer for me. It comes in fits and starts, and it’s a much more raw and wounding process when it happens.
Writing for me generally tends to be cathartic, but with fiction there’s at least some plausible deniability that I’m writing about myself. Not so with creative non-fiction. It’s a bit harder to turn that spotlight on my own life and look so unflinchingly at it. I tend to do it only when I really, really feel moved to do so. When something gets its hooks in and won’t let go.
F: You navigate issues of queerness and gender in your writing. Why are those important topics to you personally?
BRS: Ah, they say write what you know. The short answer is I write about queerness and gender because I’m queer and I’m genderqueer, and I’d like to see more stories that reflect the lives of people like me. There are certain dominant narratives about what it is to be queer and trans, and it would have helped me to understand my own gender and sexuality better if I had been exposed to alternate narratives sooner, either in fiction or non-fiction. So part of why I write is for that: because maybe by infusing my own experiences in my work I can help those whose queerness or gender variance doesn’t look like the dominant narrative name themselves a little sooner, gain a community.
The long answer is that I don’t know how to write otherwise. The queerness and the questioning of gender slips into my writing whether I want it to or not, whether I realize it or not, because it’s just part of who I am. It’s part of how I understand the world, and it’s part of how the world understands me.
My fiction is all fantasy and sci-fi, and I like that stuff because there’s a freedom to play with conventions and to mess around with what we do and don’t take for granted in the real world. There’s space to imagine worlds in which queerness is normative, or gender variance is normative, and how would that look or feel? How would that develop? What would that mean?
And it’s deeper than that. My marginalized identities rise to the top–sexuality, gender, I live with intermittent mental and physical disabilities, I grew up poor–but the privileged, dominant identities shape my writing, too. I’m white. I’m American. I’m neurotypical. While I grew up poor, I’m insultingly well educated now and have parlayed that into a stable middle-class life these days. I try and keep it all in perspective, but there are blind spots. I know there are blind spots even if I can’t see them myself.
F: You also talk a lot about queerness and gender in the context of parenting. How has being a parent further enhanced your understanding of gender and sexuality?
BRS: I came out as genderqueer because I had a kid. I had always felt like I was sort of playing the role of a woman, like faking it pretty unsuccessfully, but going through the incredibly gendered process of pregnancy and birth and parenting was what pushed me over the line. I wrote about that experience for HOAX zine a couple of years ago.
The genderqueer stuff unleashed all the sexuality stuff, which, I don’t know how common it is to do that–question your gender, then question your sexuality. I feel like I did it backwards. But I remember thinking ‘ok, I’m not a woman. I’m not either. If I’m not even on the binary, then straightness as a concept kind of doesn’t make sense anymore, and—oh, so that’s why I keep making out with women, huh?’ In retrospect it had been a long, long process of repression leading up to that.
I had my kid, came out as trans and queer, and promptly had a handful of shitty reactions strewn in amongst the mostly supportive ones. My primary partner and I opened up our relationship so I could explore my newfound realizations about my sexuality right as we started parenting, which also resulted in a fresh wave shitty/supportive reactions. My family is now a triad (me, my kid’s dad, our third partner, who is wonderful mother to our kid). What I’ve learned mostly though is that once you become a parent your private life is public game. Everyone feels like they have a say in what you should be doing because WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILD??
In terms of my own parenting, we’ve been raising the kiddo themself without restrictive gender roles. And all signs point to them following in my footsteps–kiddo might be trans, too. If they are, they’ll have a hell of a different experience growing up trans than I did.
F: How do you think social media such as Twitter can play an important role in amplifying voices and speak about important social issues?
BRS: I think social media is immensely useful. It flattens social distances between people and makes outreach much easier, which means that artists and authors can connect much more easily and directly to their audiences. The immediacy of communication through the internet means that communities of people can form across great distances in ways that were unfathomable thirty years ago, which us such a boon to marginalized writers looking for support and validation.
This is not to say social media is perfect. It isn’t. It’s not a magic bullet–there are issues of access and accessibility that breakdown along axes of power and privilege. Everything happens incredibly quickly, and sometimes people act before they think, self-included. And it’s true that in the great maw of the internet it’s hard to stand out, to find an audience, to create a community, for marginalized artists and writers.
I, personally, have found Twitter useful. It’s helped me connect to other writers. I have gotten recs for amazing books by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color, that I would never have found otherwise through Twitter. Because everything moves so quickly on Twitter, you can really see where people stand on issues, too. Which, for me as an emerging writer, that gives me a lot of food for thought. When I have a story going out on submission and I see an editor of a magazine I follow tweet something not so great it gives me pause. Like, do I trust that person’s curatorial instincts? Should I sub there or somewhere else?
In terms of speaking out about things like racism, sexism, heteronormativity, classism, ableism in publishing, that is always risky. There is a practical part of my brain that is always like “what are you doing? Don’t blog about that, don’t tweet about that! You’re trying to sell people your work!” And I hate that part of myself, because that little practical voice is exactly part of the problem. Honestly, I’d rather be outspoken about all the isms and get myself blacklisted than hold my tongue and get published by a racist asshole. This is my way of disrupting the status quo. This, and actively seeking out and reading, reviewing and promoting works by other marginalized writers.
F: You identify as queer, trans, and white. How do you balance calling attention to your marginalized identities while acknowledging your privilege?
BRS: I don’t know that I’m doing it right, but I’m trying. With my own marginalized identities, I speak up when I feel talked over and stepped on. And I listen to people whom I have privilege over when they tell me I’ve fucked up. When people of color tell me to shut up and listen, I shut up and listen.
Honestly this isn’t hard to do. All it takes is knowing people of color who trust you enough to call you out, and then being willing to take that call out for what it is. One of my partners is Latina, and we’re raising a kid together–a white kid. That’s fraught with issues. She’s taken for the nanny often when she’s out with our kid. How messed up is that? The only way out of that kind of thing is through it, but talking about it, by talking about race with each other, with our kid. By being open to talking about race. I think the same thing is true in every sphere of life. My day job is in public education. How messed up is it that the vast majority of teachers and central admin in public education, self included are white, but most of the children we serve in public education are of color? We have persistent achievement gaps in this country, but people I work with get squeamish when I bring up race like these discrepancies don’t factor in.
Allyship is a tricky thing. It’s hard to know when to talk about race, physical disability, neurodiversity–marginalizations I don’t always experience myself–because I don’t want to overstep and take over conversations. But when people are being thoughtless or outright assholes I’ll say something, and I’ll amplify the voices of people who have lived that experience. That’s the key, I think, is amplifying others’ voices instead of your own. And do to that you have to spend a lot of time in the background, listening, not taking up space.
F: You mentioned the importance of advocating for writers of color and writers with physical disabilities. Why do you think it’s so crucial for marginalized writers to advocate for writers other marginalized communities?
BRS: We’re all in this together! In the words of Staceyann Chin, all oppression is connected. I’d add to that that each oppression may follow similar mechanisms but is experienced in unique ways. And, of course, intersectionality is a thing. I guess for me it boils down to the fact that winning along one axis of power can’t be done in a vacuum. Ending sexism, for example, cannot happen without ending racism and classim and everything else because women of color exist and queer women exist and queer women of color exist and queer women of color with disabilities exist. So if you’re not fighting for the most affect and oppressed and cast aside in the group, then who are you really fighting for? I’m not about low-hanging fruit. I’m about real, permanent structural changes.
As a white queer writer who has advocated for greater diversity in literature, me advocating for writers of color is me putting my money where my mouth is. That’s me walking the walk. I’m not advocating for diversity in literature because I want to be able to sell my books better. Like, yeah, that would be nice for me personally or whatever. I’m advocating for diversity in literature because it’s deeply wrong that only certain narratives show up in books which are widely accessible–it’s wrong that when disabilities are portrayed in books it’s through an ableist lens and the disability is often riddled with factual errors. It’s wrong that white people writing characters of color are hailed as brave while writers of color are turned away because a publishing house already has signed up a Black writer or an Asian writer.
Ultimately the success of any marginalized writer is my success, too. Pushing back on the system from any direction is a step forward. I put my own voice out there, and I listen for other voices. When I hear them, I amplify them. That’s solidarity.
Pronouns: they/them/their. B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. Their recent novel, Ariah, is about queer elves fighting oppression. Outside of writing, B has worked as a research psychologist, a labor organizer and a K-12 public education data specialist. B blogs and writes a weekly newsletter chock full of book recs.