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Author Spotlight: Jon Hartless discusses who can tell stories in a pluralistic society

Author Spotlight is our new series that aims to give a platform for writers to discuss the art form we all love so much. This time we are joined by Jon Hartless as he takes a look at “The right to write – who can tell stories in a pluralistic society?”

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

Jon Hartless

Recently, voices have been raised concerning who has the right to tell certain stories. Jordan Marie Green announced the debut of a romantic novel set in Tahiti before a backlash against cultural appropriation and stereotyping prompted the book’s withdrawal. Becky Albertalli had to out herself as bisexual under pressure from several Internet commentators who felt she had no right to write about gay teenagers as she was (presenting as) a straight woman, and finally a disabled gameplayer unwittingly unleashed a wave of ableist anger at her inclusion of a combat wheelchair in the DnD universe.

It is the last two which intersect with my own work, for I recently started publishing a Steampunk series featuring a bisexual, disabled protagonist – and now I’m wondering if I was right to do so, given I’m heterosexual and able-bodied. (Steampunk, in case you don’t know, is set in an alternative timeline and features advanced technology. Mechanical prosthetics are popular tropes within the genre, along with airships and goggles).

When I started writing the series, I wanted to examine the gulf between the rich and the poor, as well as the associated chasm between the socially acceptable (i.e. white, male, hetero, posh) and everyone else. Hence the creation of Poppy Orpington; a woman in a man’s world. A bisexual within heteronormative culture. Disabled in an ableist society. And poor within a capitalist hierarchy which works exclusively for the benefit of the wealthy elite.

Furthermore, I was determined to use the tropes of Steampunk in a “believable” way, and in a manner which served the plot, rather than just gratuitously inserting them without any real thought. For this reason, Poppy is born with a missing arm, (for birth defects are common in her society, at least for those who live in poverty), and she only acquires a fully functioning prosthetic after a turnaround in her family’s fortune.

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This, then, is Poppy’s world. She must hide her sexuality for the sake of her personal welfare, while her disabilities bring her into conflict with the dominant ableist beliefs of the era. So, how would Poppy feel if she suddenly had opportunities hitherto denied to her? The opportunities of relative wealth, of limited social acceptance, and of having a fully integrated prosthetic which would allow her to live a “normal” life – though it must be noted that the concept of “normal” is constructed by the discriminatory attitudes of able-bodied society.

These were the subjects I wanted to examine, and I did my best to be as sensitive as possible, but did I have the right to even try in the first place? Even as I’m penning this article, the issue of Becky Albertalli’s sexuality is still rumbling on, with one Twitter commentator asserting that non-queer creators shouldn’t be making money from the queer audience – though this is by no means a universal opinion.

Full Throttle Cover

I honestly don’t know what the answer is to this, or even if there is an answer. But I am now keenly aware that I’m merely an outsider looking in, and if I were writing the Poppy series today, I doubt I would include anything about sexuality or disability at all.

That would have created some difficulties with regard to the plot, given Poppy’s character is (like all of us) created by the society she is raised in, (not to mention the vital role her prosthetic plays in the later stages of book 1), but it would probably have been a lot safer, and more considerate, to restructure the book rather than to risk offending innumerable people through a lack of knowledge and understanding.

Jon Hartless is the author of Full Throttle and Rise of the Petrol Queen, books 1 & 2 in the Poppy Orpington series. Book 3, Fall of the Petrol Queen, should be released in October 2020 via Tenebrous Texts.

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