Jan 11, 2017
We Are Not Broken: On Asexuality and Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths
You are not broken. Asexuals often repeat this tagline as encouragement to each other throughout the Asexual Awareness and Visibility Movement—where people like myself who experience no sexual attraction (or limited sexual attraction—asexuality is a spectrum)—, make our voices heard. You are not broken. This phrase could just as easily be the central theme of Sarah Monette’s fantasy quartet The Doctrine of Labyrinths.
The novels are narrated by two half-brothers in alternating first-person point of view. In many ways, these characters are broken. Mildmay the Fox is a cat-burglar and ex-assassin. Felix Harrowgate is a gay wizard and former child prostitute. Monette’s series explores the reality of abuse and recovery.
It’s a great set up to explore queer identities. Queerness is not new to Monette’s writing. She has been queering the fantasy and horror genres since the lesbian relationship she featured in “Three Letters from the Queen of Elflands.”. In fact, she lists heteronormativity as a trope she refuses to write into her fantasy novels. As Monette explained in an interview with ofblogspot, “Felix is a campaign against heteronormativity all on his own.” Felix’s story stretches beyond a story about a gay man. His story defines my experience as an asexual woman.
This is the purpose of literature: it engenders empathy and dignity for those who are not us, while giving us new insight to see ourselves more clearly. As Americans transition to live under the president-elect, it is more important than ever that readers of all identities read in order to learn about the lives and experiences of others. We must practice empathy. We must live believing that none of us are broken; every person deserves love.
Lauren Jankowski, asexual activist and founder of Asexual Artists, explained more about why You are not broken has been such a rallying cry for the asexual community. “Declaring ‘I’m not broken,’” she says, becomes “a declaration of freedom, a way to say, ‘I love who I am and I don’t need to be fixed.’” This self-assurance and self-love belongs to any and all marginalized identity groups.
But Monette’s characters have a long way to go before they can reach that point of catharsis and self-acceptance. In Mèlusine, the first novel in the series, it appears that Felix is broken. Another wizard publicly reveals his past as a sex worker. His former master rapes him and drives Felix mad.
Felix is not a character you would want to have much in common with and I worried when I started the novel, that he and I were too different for me to invest myself in his narrative. As a sex-repulsed asexual woman, how could I ever relate to a gay male sex worker?
When you are not straight, white, cisgender, and male, chances are the protagonists in most novels will not look very much like you. But the more stories we read about people who are not straight, white, cisgender, and male, the more we are all humanized. Even though Felix is male and gay his story crossed lines of gender and sexuality to convey that even the people who most believe they are broken are still worthy of love.
Literature is a well-polished fun house mirror. When I read Felix’s story, I saw myself.
Throughout the Doctrine of Labyrinths, Felix journeys toward love for others and self-acceptance. In Mèlusine, his physical quest is to regain his sanity but his emotional quest is to learn to love and trust his half-brother, Mildmay. The second novel, The Virtu, depicts Felix’s downward spiral because even though he is sane, all of his manipulative and hideous qualities emerge: he desires to be loved but give nothing in return. He lashes out from fear that he is not capable of reciprocating love. The third book, The Mirador, is a testament to Felix’s festering self-hatred. He cheats on his long-term partner, vents through violent sex with sex workers, and grapples with the legacy and ghost of his former master and rapist. But the final book, Corambis, leaves Felix and Mildmay banished. Love must be familial love for each other and the self-love to make that feasible. The series ends with Felix believing himself capable of overcoming his mistakes and being a loving person.
His arc takes him from self-denial to self-acceptance. Self-hatred to self-love.
Characters and their relationships propel Monette’s series. While these relationships are often sexual (there are no expressly asexual characters), the struggle for love and meaningful connections cross all boundaries of gender and sexuality. You don’t need to experience sexual attraction, or be anywhere on the queer spectrum, to understand Felix’s need to have control in his relationships. Love, and the reasons for its lack, became accessible to me, as never before.
In The Virtu, Mildmay calls Felix out on his manipulative behavior, “You like knowing people want you…it’s like you got to have everybody’s heart, and if they don’t give it, you rip it out and watch it bleed.” If you pick through the gore of Mildmay’s words, he’s describing a safety mechanism. It’s a way for Felix to form relationships where he holds the power over another’s feelings. He will wound you if you do not love him on his terms. He’s in control and can always back out of these relationships. No matter how he treats another person, he has to believe he can emerge unscathed.
It’s a familiar tactic. One I’ve practiced far too often.
I too want everybody’s heart, so long as no one has mine. I couldn’t give my heart anyway. Without sexual attraction, there was only so much I could give in my relationships. Like Felix, I too desire to be loved, but skirt my share of the emotional commitment. As an asexual, it was easy to believe that those around me would stop loving me soon enough, and that all relationships were temporary. When the time would come, there would be a clean unemotional break. It sounds cruel, but please remember this is a safety mechanism. It is a way to move about in a sexual world that demands visible heterosexuality.
I came out to my older brother as asexual when I was still in high school. We were walking the blocks of my grandparents’ suburban New York neighborhood when I told him, “I’m asexual. I don’t like men or women,” Or anyone, I explained. I was asexual and aromantic. Sex-repulsed and with no interest in romantic relationships.
My brother replied, “That’s not the worst thing you could have said.”
The worst thing was to be visibly queer. The worst thing was fearing even years later that I would slip up, become too queer in mannerism or dress, and lose my brother’s love, one of the few relationships I never viewed as temporary.
Felix’s master broke him of his lower-class accent and slang until even words like “okay” became horrible gutter-rat curses. My brother is not abusive, but we created a cultural silence that barred me from being queer in his presence and when we spoke on the phone. He would call someone a fag and not understand my objection. As far as he was concerned, his jokes didn’t matter because he wasn’t insulting me: I wasn’t gay. Being aromantic provided a safety buffer from my brother’s bigotry.
But then I came to understand that perhaps I was not aromantic, but homo-romantic. In my journal, I wrote words like crush and girlfriend for the first time in relationship to me and my desires. But I ended with denial. I was not homo-romantic. I was not homo-romantic. I couldn’t be homo-romantic. I had spent so many years as aromantic, how could I have misjudged myself with such incompetence? How could I come out to those around me again?
The woman I danced with was a friend. A friend only. Not even a friend to slow dance with. But a friend I wanted to spend more time with, just to be in her company. I could picture holding her hand and how that grip would be a different kind of warmth, a tug into physical contact previously unknown and undesirable. I wanted to hold her hand. On the dance floor, I smiled and she smiled back, twirling on the toes of her boots and flipping her hair to the beat.
I wrote in my journal, “You do not have a crush” enough times that I knew it to be false. My childhood suddenly made sense. I was hit with a barrage of similar unknowable feelings for girl friends in elementary school—where I followed them during recess, watching when they got up in class to blow their nose. When they rebuffed these attentions, I assumed I just didn’t understand friendship and boundaries yet. But maybe, these were romantic crushes all along and I never knew to name them.
Maybe, I was asexual and liked women.
But another layer of complication when considering future romantic relationships is one more trait Felix and I share: we struggle to disentangle sex from love. We’re not the only ones. Equating sex and love is a common misconception our everyday language reinforces. Terms like “making love”, for instance, put forth the idea that the physical act of sex creates love. As if those who are not sexually active are barred from love and all its joys. For Felix, equating sex and love creates incestuous thoughts and feelings toward Mildmay. For Felix, love cannot be expressed without a sexual component.
As Lauren Jankowski explains, “there’s this idea that the only “real” intimacy is sexual in nature and anything platonic isn’t as important or deep or meaningful.” Even before having this analysis I bought into the idea that sexual relationships were the pinnacle of human emotion and connection. As an asexual, I feared I could not be loved because I could not give love in return. Not real love. Not the physical love others want to receive.
Yet it is Felix, who navigates his relationships through sex and sexuality, who helped me come out as homo-romantic. He’s a character who makes awful decisions, hurts those who love him, and manipulates to avoid giving of himself. Still, he clings to the hope that he can change. He learns self-love and familial love and love that goes beyond sex and sexuality. If I could see myself in Felix and still love him, then I could learn to love myself even with newfound romantic attraction.
I first came out as homo-romantic while studying abroad in Istanbul, Turkey. I came out to the woman I had a crush on and while I wasn’t brave enough to say that I loved her, it was the first time I voiced being both asexual and romantically interested in women. On the couch of her apartment, she leaned forward over her mug of Turkish tea and asked to hear more. She wanted to better understand. She wanted nothing of me beyond what I was willing to give. We talked past three in the morning and I knew I would never be the worst thing in her eyes.
Even though Felix is a fictional character, he helped me see that believing you are worthy of love isn’t shameful. Thankfully, Felix and I have vastly different life experiences and relationships. I cannot begin to comprehend the difference between a coming out story versus a history of sexual abuse. By the end of Mèlusine, Felix reveals his past as a prostitute to Mildmay, and for the first time reveals that his former master raped him. “I had said it and had not died. Mildmay had heard me and did not find me abhorrent.” If Felix could be this honest and vulnerable, surely, I could face coming out as homo-romantic.
My brother and I hadn’t spoken in months when I returned home from Turkey for a few weeks before going back to college. Living in the same house, we skirted each other’s borders with stiff silence. But I approached him and unearthed my secret of romantic attraction. I told him I might show up one day with a girlfriend. I demanded that both of us acknowledge that I am capable of loving and being loved.
At the end of Corambis, Mildmay asks Felix, ‘“Ddo you think you’re gonna be happy?”’ Felix responds, ‘“I hope, […] that we will be happy. But I don’t know. All we can do is try.”’
We. We are not broken. The Doctrine of Labyrinths is a testament to human connection, the ability to change, and the ability to extend love to yourself and beyond. That’s the purpose of literature. That’s why we open our minds to words and worlds and people like us but drastically different than us as well. And in a political climate spewing fear and hatred, it is more important than ever that we abandon defense mechanisms that isolate us in self-loathing and terror. Instead we must listen to the stories of others and let these voices in. Through literature we learn to empathize with those we are not, in order to better understand and accept who we are.
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