Coding Gender with Paul Tremblay
Welcome to the first installment of my new weekly blog series on what my readings this week have taught me about writing. Generally speaking, I’ll be sticking to the same format every week but will make changes as you suggest them (either in the comments below or through the “Contact” form). As much as possible, I’ll avoid spoilers, but it’s always advisable to read the story first, for context.
This week’s story is available for free by clicking the Bourbon Penn Issue 8 cover to the above. If you read the first 6 paragraphs or so it will add a lot of context to this post, but it will also suck you in, I’m sure.
Writing a gender that differs from your own is an uphill battle from the start.
As soon as a reader picks up your story, they’ll note the gender your name seems to indicate, and it colors their reading of your story. I’m a writer who often chooses to write from a female POV, and so my college workshops often questioned the voice of my narrator–they’d tell me that I needed to work on making the voice of my character “girlier” as if there is some easily definable and generalize-able difference in the way other-gendered people would narrate a story.
Dutiful workshop student as I was, I started going down the hole of research on the Birds and the Bees.
Don’t go down that hole. It’s riddled with bad, even offensive advice. Instead, read a story.
An excellent recent example of a writer narrating from another gender’s POV is Paul Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks” which was published in Bourbon Penn and went on to be chosen by Laird Barron for Year’s Best Weird Fiction V1.
First time I read this story, it blew me away. The speculative element is in the background but does an amazing job of complementing the foregrounded “mundane” drama of a drug-addicted mother trying to raise her daughter, who she no longer has custody of. It’s a first person story written in the rambling style that is typical of first person narratives from characters who are struggling with addiction, but the flow of the prose is undeniably well controlled and the two story-lines (speculative and non speculative) come crashing together at just the right time.
Also, the story is short. In Year’s Best Weird Fiction it is only 6 pages long.
Needless to say, I love this story. An additional item of note: when I went back to read the story again, just for fun, I had somehow erased from my mind that the author was a man. While I never have before used the “Not convinced by the female voice” line when critiquing a story, I’ve also never been so convinced by a character’s voice that I switched the gender of the author to match. So I needed to know why.
Here’s the thing about Tremblay’s narrator: she does so many things that are typically seen as masculine. She swears and breaks things and clomps around in boots. Her thoughts often run violent. She is not a girly girl. To kidnap her daughter, she pulls a big ol’ knife on her mother’s boyfriend.
Also this author does not have the luxury of simply calling the character a “she” because it’s in first person. For the first 2 paragraphs, we have no clue of her gender.
Still, Tremblay has obviously put a lot of work into convincing us of her gender, especially in the first scene, where there are 5 different clues. In the middle scene, we get 0 reminders of the character’s Gender, and in the final scene we get 3. They are of 3 kinds:
Direct Gender Coding: These come from the narrator herself and appear to work best when hidden in the character’s voice. They should be simple, and not overly clever.
- “I never signed up to be their bogeywoman.” (Paragraph 6)
- “You sing it, girl.” (Paragraph 31)
- “So something a mom would say.” (Paragraph 62)
- “Your Mom’s here.” (Final Paragraph)
Indirect Gender Coding: These come from outside the narration in some way. Other sources, such as other characters and one news story, can be incredibly convincing in coding gender. These are often more subtle and complex, and definitely less tied in to the narrator’s voice. This part includes the way other characters treat your narrator.
- “The officer said the police don’t know why the mother headed south.” (Paragraph 3, first indication of gender)
- “She’ll ask me questions the whole time about boyfriends and having kids.” (Paragraph 10)
- “Mrs. Ewing always used to say that I should smile more because I was so pretty.” (Paragraph 59, “pretty” being an adjective Mrs. Ewing would only use for girls)
Coding with Mannerisms and Thoughts: Probably the most challenging but also most convincing form of gender coding, the first of these is what really sold me on the gender, I think.
- “When Brian sees it’s me dragging that bag of oranges over the scanner, me wondering which orange Julie will eat, sees it’s me asking if he has a Big Y rewards card, and I ask it smiling and snapping my gum, daring him to say something, anything, he can barely look me in the eye. (Paragraph 5, Note how the action of “snapping my gum” is buried in this sentence. It avoid attracting attention by being in the middle of a long sentence in a long paragraph, but a reader registers it subconsciously. A perfectly executed move.)
- “He was a quack who spent most of our sessions trying to look down my shirt, but I think he was right about breaking out of patterns.” (Paragraph 6. See the specificity of this concern? It’s not something that a male patient would usually be worried about.)
It’s of course coding with mannerisms and thoughts that is the most convincing of the bunch. On their own, these codes are so subtle as to be meaningless (because a man can snap his gum, for instance), but when paired with the direct and indirect coding they can be powerful. Best when they match the character’s voice and are evocative.
Put a lot of time into thinking of a specific action that can evoke your character and avoid easy choices that play into stereotypes and that won’t do nearly as much work (men play football, girls brush their hair, etc).
In this story, Tremblay creates a convincing female POV without resorting to gender norms by bringing to life a complex character that often crosses lines that traditionally separate the genders. It’s his use of a varied system of clues that allows him to really nail this POV.
Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or let me know if there’s anything you want me to read or if there’s a difficulty you’re having that you want me to keep an eye out for while I read.