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Being an outsider, writing the outsider

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The other day I went on an aimless walk while listening to an interview with the writer Nnedi Okorafor. She’s a very interesting interview subject overall, but one thing she said in particular really struck me:

I’ve always existed on a lot of fault lines, and that does fuel what I write.

She then went on to list a few ways she’s felt like “an outsider in multiple important groups in [her] life.”

Since publishing The Quiet is Loud, I’ve been asked often about its themes of identity and belonging. These themes were there very consciously from the beginning, but until I was directly asked about them I’d never examined why I felt drawn to write about them. What was it about identity and belonging that resonated with me so much, and why did I choose those characters to help me explore those themes?

When I was interviewed by my friend Maria Bolaños in 2021, she asked me about the role identity saliency plays in my life – how we conceptualize ourselves and how we present ourselves depending on a situation. Answering that question crystallized everything for me. I realized that my own mixed-race identity, which had often caused me to feel like a bit of an outsider within all my cultures, influenced my entire worldview.

Then, I identified other areas of my life where I felt outside of what’s expected – whether by choice or not – and how they also influenced my worldview. I understood how this made me more sensitive to the way that people may feel isolated or excluded, and more interested in seeing those people succeed on their own terms.

When I started writing Seeker of the Lost Song I carried that feeling a bit more at the forefront. Its characters, trying to investigate their own desires in a paranoid and conformist empire, can’t be anything but outsiders. And in its sequel, I’m having fun examining how and why people exclude themselves even from those closest to them.

I know it can be a little gauche to declare yourself an outsider, and I feel a little “gah” about doing it myself. I know that everyone is an outsider somewhere. I fucking love some of the ways in which I’m an outsider (I know it’s also gauche to declare oneself punk and I’m very much not doing that, but I can’t deny the pull towards DIY, rough-edged self-expression I’ve felt all my life). Hell, there are some areas in my life in which I’m very much not excluded. But I’m just perennially drawn to outsiders and underdogs just trying to live their lives, finding their own balance. It’s something that feels familiar to me but also endlessly fascinating as a concept, with its twisty opportunities for intersection and redirection.

I see this even in the way I approach my chosen genre. My inability to stick cleanly to one genre, preferring instead to blend two or three, feels good and right to me. And I can’t help but notice that with Seeker and its sequel, I’m wholly uninterested in writing about any truly powerful insider of the Leitir Empire, which could be considered the analogue for a kingdom or court of this world. There can be underdogs there, of course, but I’m just not interested in them right now – I’m more interested in exploring the lives of people outside of that power structure or just teetering on the edge of it.

I exist on several fault lines myself, and for me there’s no better place to find magical character moments and questions to explore.


PS This journal entry first appeared in my monthly newsletter, Deadmedia, in June 2023. To get more posts like this as I write them, and other writing updates and behind the scenes peeks, join me here!

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