The Uses and Abuses of Narrative
October 09, 2020
By Angela Chen
This essay appeared originally in Powell’s.
I distrust narratives, always have. The child too shy to open her mouth and captivate others with story became the science journalist who fetishized data instead, fond of talking about how stories can stand in the way of justice—just look at how a blond girl suddenly kidnapped can receive so much more attention and care than all the less photogenic children who live every day in difficult conditions.
The distrust has not changed. I still believe that narratives are easy to mutate and misinterpret, and that narrative is an insidious form of magic, a tool not always used for good. The difference now is that I see that narrative is all there is. All my suspicion has done little to immunize me; I am not as imaginative as I would like to believe. And I keep thinking about a minor plot point in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials how it taught me without me knowing, and how it hits differently now.
One of the most alluring feats of world-building in that universe is the daemon, the animal personification of a person’s soul. Daemons change shape throughout childhood, but eventually pick an animal and stick to it. At the end of the Pullman series, young protagonists Lyra and Will touch each other’s daemons (which is usually a major taboo). Their daemons settle, hers into a pine marten and his into a cat. They are adults now. “And she knew, too,” Pullman writes, “that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hands on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other.”
It’s a quiet detail and a lovely moment. It is a new rule in this world, one I accepted and rarely thought about until, a decade or so later, I heard someone joke: If you’re asexual, does that mean your daemon remains a shapeshifter forever? (Asexual people can experience romantic attraction—it's people who are aromantic who usually don't have lovers—but Pullman is alluding to both sexual and romantic awakening here.) And the subtext: Since only children have shifting daemons, will you be seen as a child forever?
It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment, yes, but it also pokes a hole in a narrative that most readers had taken for granted. His Dark Materials used a story to reinforce the old lesson that sexual maturity equals the onset of adulthood. Sexuality equals growing up; before that, you are a child, immature and naive about the ways of the world.
For many, this lesson lines up with what they know of life. There is no incongruity, and so this passage provokes no criticism. For asexuals, or aces—people who do not experience sexual attraction—this type of narrative can be wielded to infantilize us. It can be internalized, too, used against ourselves. Many people I interviewed for my book Ace told me about struggling with the feeling that they were infantile, despite not knowing, exactly, where that feeling had come from or how they had learned it.
This is not the only lesson from fiction that we absorb about those who may be ace. Though few literary novels feature protagonists who could be read as asexual, recent fiction does provide two examples. One is Keiko Furukura, the eponymous protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. The other is Jude St. Francis, from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. (Neither character explicitly identifies as ace.)
Keiko from Convenience Store Woman has always been a misfit. She is not ambitious. She is not interested in a traditional career, and she is even less interested in romantic relationships, sexuality, or children, much to the dismay of a family who just wants her to be “normal.” The book is clearly a critique of the patriarchal pressures placed on Japanese women—yet by making Keiko such an outlier, it also reinforces the idea that not being interested in sexuality is “odd,” a trait of those on the fringes. There is nothing wrong with being odd or on the fringes, but this connection with asexuality is very common, and I'd like to see portrayals expand beyond this set of associations. Asexuality should be normalized and presented as part of the everyday lives of many types of people.
Jude from A Little Life teaches a different, though equally easy to misinterpret, lesson. A brilliant and much-loved lawyer, Jude’s history of sexual trauma has made him averse to having sex. Jude should be claimed as asexual, especially because there are asexual people who are disabled and asexual people who are survivors of sexual violence. Yet when general ace representation is so thin, each example can become overly important, and narratives never exist in a vacuum. If Jude were to become the face of asexuality in modern fiction, set against the reality that most people still don’t understand the nuances of the orientation, it becomes very likely that people will learn another misguided lesson: that asexuality is always related to disability or sexual trauma—when that is not always the case.
It’s too much pressure to place on any book, and the only solution is more stories. Narratives exclude, but a multiplicity of narratives can provide a fuller picture, and I have tried to do some of this work myself. In the months since I first published an excerpt of Ace, many people have reached out to me, saying that my description of my own asexuality aligned with their experience in a way that other depictions of asexuality never had. I am not disabled or a survivor of sexual violence like Jude or “quirky” like Keiko. I am not celibate or sex-repulsed like many common representations of asexuality in nonfiction. People told me that my narrative was an anchor of sorts and that they were going to think more carefully now about the labels that fit and do not, and what that might mean, and what lessons they have learned and what new lessons they need to learn.
I see now that narrative is inescapable. Our minds are never blank slates, and to think so is to be deluded, even less objective than if we interrogated our assumptions. We can only try to question that which we may have already learned and, when those lessons are found lacking, look for new stories that contain new revelations.
About the Author
Angela Chen is a journalist and writer in New York City. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, Guardian, Paris Review, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. Chen is a member of the ace community and has spoken about asexuality at academic conferences and events including World Pride. Find her on Twitter @chengela or at angelachen.org.