When I started writing Eelgrass, my first novel, I planned that the main lesbian romance would be a surprise to no one, least of all the main character, Efa.
“She’s never really been in a relationship before,” I remember telling my mom, feeling very smug, “but it’s not going to be a huge surprise when she ends up with another woman.”
My mom says that she never mistook me for straight, but certainly it was clear after my kindergarten teacher made me cry by telling me I couldn’t grow up to marry a girl. It took me a few years longer. By the time I was ten, I had fallen in love with yet another female best friend, written the requisite six weeks of embarrassing poetry, and come out to my entire school. After a few more years of low-key self-doubt every time I had a new crush, I concluded that “bisexual” was good enough and stopped worrying. I think I was thirteen.
I’ve always known that, thanks to a confluence of factors ranging from “a very cool family” to “the Upper West Side of Manhattan circa ’04,” I figured myself out fairly quickly and easily. But it always seemed like the fictional characters I knew – in such classic works as Magic’s Pawn and But I’m A Cheerleader – took a really long time to think it over and panic. Or they were a character in RENT, in which case being gay was an important backstory for horrible tragedy.
So I was really excited to write a story where it was no big deal. Mermaids! Selkies! Emotionally healthy lesbians!
And then I realized that I was writing a story about a woman whose best friend was kidnapped and forced into marriage to a stranger. A woman who couldn’t find anyone to agree with her that this was a problem. “Oh,” I said. “This is a story about rape culture.”
When Eelgrass starts, Efa has bought into her society’s gender roles her entire life. Being a good friend, daughter, and sister suits her. Even when she experiences conflicts between who she is and what other people want from her, she tends not to want to (bad joke alert) make waves. We all know these people. If she didn’t need to save her best friend, she would have ended up in her eighties, teaching a great-grandchild to dig up clams and saying things like, “Well, of course I loved your grandfather, but I don’t know that I was ever really in love with him.”
I wasn’t writing about the sort of woman who would fall in love with a beautiful she-beast from the depths and immediately start reading Alison Bechdel, like, uh, I did. Efa’s more likely to panic over what her mother will think, and is it worse that this monster thinks it’s morally right (probably) to cut open someone’s belly and guzzle their innards, or that she’s a girl?
It didn’t quite turn into the forty pages of beleaguered angst that I was afraid of writing, but Efa’s story of glamorous lesbian self-discovery changed a lot to fit the rest of the book. And I’m still not (totally) sure how to tread the line between magical, bedazzling coming out stories and characters who have been sure of themselves for what seems like ever.
But hey, at least nowadays we can have fun figuring out who we are.