Happy Asexual Awareness Week! I’m thrilled to be celebrating it with some great ace authors, who’ve gathered together for a roundtable moderated by author Rosiee Thor! I’ll let them take it away!
Happy asexual awareness week! I love this week every year–not only is it an affirming celebration of people who share my identity, it’s also a great time to take a look at the growth we’ve seen in ace representation across media. This year has been an amazing year for ace books, so I sat down with a few of my favorite authors writing ace stories to talk about the state of asexual representation and what it means to them as storytellers.
Rosiee: Thank you so much for joining me today for this asexual-spectrum roundtable! I’m excited to chat with you all about ace representation, writing while ace-spec, and the future of asexual fiction. To start us off, could you each introduce yourselves and tell us a little about what you write?
Naseem: I’m psyched to be here; thanks for having us! I’m Naseem Jamnia (they/them), a nonbinary trans gray-ace Persian-Chicagoan currently living in Reno, NV. I write fantasy across the ages, but my debut novella, The Bruising of Qilwa, is adult. It’s about an aroace nonbinary refugee healer who is trying to cure a magical plague in their new home while hiding their blood magic. Heavily inspired by Dragon Age 2, Qilwa introduces my queernormative, Persian-inspired secondary world!
RoAnna: Hi y’all! Really happy and excited to be here, thank you Rosiee! So I’m RoAnna Sylver, a nonbinary gender-weird chronically ill writer/artist/musician/heathen. I write really weird queer SFF books (Chameleon Moon, Stake Sauce), and interactive fiction (Dawnfall from Choice of Games, The Great Batsby upcoming from Tales Fiction). I also have a soft spot for horror, so my next projects lean that way too. Also Naseem, your book sounds legit awesome and I want to check it out for sure. (For many reasons but also ahhh, more love for Dragon Age 2!)
Finn: So happy to have the chance to join in with this! Hi, I’m Finn (they/them), a queer disabled author and medievalist currently living in Cambridge, UK. I write all sorts of genreweird stuff, but my debut, The Butterfly Assassin, is a YA thriller about a traumatised teenage assassin trying and failing to live a normal life in a fictional closed city. And by failing, I mean she kills someone in chapter one. So, you know, doing a great job there.
Carly: Hi everyone! I’m Carly Heath (she/they) a writer, teacher, Libra and horse girl from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently living on the West Coast of the US. My debut YA novel is The Reckless Kind out now from Soho Teen and out in paperback November 1. Like me, the main character in The Reckless Kind, Asta, is hard of hearing, ace, and wants pigs not babies. I write (mostly historically-set) novels about characters who push back against the restrictions placed on them by society and I hope to inspire teens and young people to question and resist authority in all its forms.
AdriAnne: Hi all! So happy to be here. I’m a queer (panromantic gray-ace demigirl) author (she/they) of queer dark fantasy about monstrous or perceived-to-be-monstrous teens just trying to get by. I live in both Alaska and Spain (I just got back to Spain and am super jetlagged so pardon me if I make no sense), and my books are Beyond the Black Door (with a biromantic ace main character, ace love interest), In The Ravenous Dark (pansexual MC, ace side character), and the forthcoming Court of the Undying Seasons (demigirl pansexual MC, ace SCs), all published with Macmillan.
Rosiee: Yay! I’m so glad you’re all here to chat with me. Let’s jump right into it. Most of us were readers before we became writers, so I’m curious to know about your first experience was with asexual characters. Where did you first see an ace character in fiction? What was it like to see your experience reflected in a book?
RoAnna: Hmm… I believe the first ace character I ever read was either Henry from Viral Airwaves, or Hasryan in City of Strife – both by Claudie Arseneault! And highly recommended for fans of hopeful-dystopian/”solarpunk,” and sweeping fantasy, respectively. And the feeling I got was a sense of combined excitement and relief, if that makes sense? Like “oh wow thank God, someone else gets it/this is real… OH WOW THIS IS REAL!” So, really validating for myself as well. Online community is so important, but there’s also something about seeing yourself on a page, in a story, that’s just so wonderful.
Carly: I did not have anything ace-spec when I was growing up, so I think the any time I was first introduced to an ace character was when I was learning about Greek/Roman mythology and encountered Diana/Artemis who I was obsessed with for quite a while because she was not only a “virgin” goddess, but the goddess of wild animals—which I totally identify with (as someone who regularly befriends the neighborhood raccoons and possums). I was also drawn to horse girl books when I was younger—The Saddle Club and Thoroughbred series—I think because they focused more on the relationships between the characters and their horses rather than on romance.
AdriAnne: I didn’t find any ace-spec books as a kid or teen either, so the first time I came across an ace character was as an adult when I read Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Not only is the book an amazingly unique take on portal fantasy, but the main character is explicitly ace. I’d only recently discovered my own labels through internet research and AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network) and it made me feel so seen and not so alone. I can only imagine what it would have felt like to read this book as a teen, which is one of the reasons I wrote Beyond the Black Door–a book basically for teen-me.
Finn: I think the first book I ever read that used the word asexual on page was Quicksilver by RJ Anderson. Although the character’s experiences weren’t particularly similar to mine, since they were fairly specific to her circumstances, it was really validating to see the word in print, when before that I’d only ever seen it on Tumblr and in other online communities. Like, okay, this is a real thing, this is something that people know about. After that one, it would’ve been Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, which has a demisexual character. As someone who really struggled at university, I found that book Extremely Relatable in a lot of ways, possibly more even than Loveless, Oseman’s more recent book that deals much more directly with ace/aro experiences.
Naseem: I actually didn’t realize I was ace-spec (I’m somewhere on the demi/gray side of things) until a few years ago because of the conflation between aromanticism and asexuality. So I don’t honestly know when I first encountered ace characters, since often due to that conflation I didn’t recognize myself in those characters, if that makes sense.
Earlier this year I read We Were Restless Things by Cole Nagamatsu. Besides it being utterly beautiful, one of the main characters is a sex-repulsed ace (not aro), and while I’m sex-neutral, I really loved how Cole grappled with the character’s relationship with sex. Noemi really tries to get over her aversion to sex in order to please her partner, because she cares about her partner, and I thought that was handled with such tenderness and care, especially because these are teens who don’t necessarily have the language of healthy relationships and boundaries yet.
I also really love Kylee in the Skybound trilogy by Alex London. I was especially drawn to her because for her, it at first feels like a matter of priority rather than identity. Kylee isn’t thinking about romantic or sexual relationships because her brother is, and she needs to make sure they have enough money to put food on the table. It’s not until we get into her relationships with others that we see it’s not just a matter of responsibility but a matter of who she is, but I appreciate someone for whom such relationships just… aren’t on her radar because she has so much on her plate. Honestly, as someone who was constantly crushing on someone while being torn about all the other things I needed to do, it’s really nice to read someone who pieces together this part of herself in the midst of a war and all the other stuff going on.
Rosiee: Phew! My TBR always grows so much during these conversations! Can’t wait to read some of those. AdriAnne, you talked a bit about this, but what about the rest of you–what inspired you to write about ace characters? What has it been like to write ace-affirming books as an ace-spec author?
RoAnna: Really natural, actually – after a while, I realized that I basically write all of my characters (or at least the POV ones) as some flavor of neurodivergent, and many of them a-spec just automatically. Like that’s my brain’s default setting apparently, and it takes a bit of effort to turn it off and go “wait, how do you write sexual attraction again?” (I think a lot of ace writers are actually very good at writing sexual stuff though, because… we often have spent a lot of time pondering it from a unique perspective, ha!) So it’s partly super natural and freeing for me personally, but also the response from ace readers is always incredible, so I’m also very much writing for y’all too. I want everyone to have the feeling I mentioned last question, the “holy crap, I’m in a book!” rush of joy and relief. I obviously can’t speak for/give that to everyone, but I still want them to have it from somewhere.
Finn: I feel that about automatically writing ace characters, RoAnna… I sometimes joke that The Butterfly Assassin is not a queernorm world so much as a singlenorm world, because I accidentally forgot that people, like, have partners, and so almost every character throughout the trilogy is single. Whoops?
I didn’t really sit down to write An Asexual Assassin Novel, but that element of the book really arose from my frustration with other media, which at the time was full of sexy assassins who (a) never seemed to actually kill anybody and (b) could be distracted from their deadly missions by somebody being a bit hot. I was also frustrated that in order to get dark, complex upper YA stories, it felt like you had to have romance/sex as a major plot element, and if you wanted friendship-focused stories, well, then, back to MG for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with MG, but when I was seventeen or eighteen, I wanted a generous helping of murder and swearing, hold the sex, thanks. So I decided to write an assassin book that was “all murder, no sex”, where platonic relationships were prioritised and not treated as less important or less mature. And where the “emotionless” character wasn’t “humanised” by sexual attraction because… ew. I read too many of those; they always made me feel like an alien or a monster.
I do worry sometimes that my book is less marketable because of the lack of romance/sex (let’s be real, in marketing terms those are often treated as interchangeable!), but I’ve seen a couple of reviews where people have said they don’t normally like books without romance but didn’t feel like anything was missing from mine because they found the platonic relationships just as fulfilling. So I’m very glad that those people are giving it a chance, and that it’s speaking to them.
Naseem: Okay, I’m screaming, Finn—I need your book yesterday!!! Like RoAnna and Finn, a lot of my characters nowadays definitely sort of naturally fall under the ace spec. I started writing at a young age, and I look back on those stories and I see the ways in which things were ace but also how I tried so hard for them not to be—there were romantic partners in my stories, but I didn’t know how to grapple with sexual desire because I didn’t understand how that was separate from romantic desire.
Nowadays, I have to choose to write a main character who experiences sexual attraction and hope that they… come off as realistic?? The novel I’m about to turn into my agent has three POV characters—a demisexual lesbian who suddenly finds herself in love with a boy; an asexual aro-questioning/demi-aro anxious bean (aka the boy) who’s been in love with his best friend but has denied it and Suddenly Now Has A Crush On Someone Else, aka the demisexual lesbian; and aforementioned best friend, an allosexual enby who doesn’t understand the difference between romantic and platonic attraction but doesn’t think they experience romantic attraction, but does want to sleep with the people they care about. (Love triangle that resolves in polyamory, anyone??) Anyway, it’s been a TIME trying to get the aromantic and allosexual components down. Since all of my secondary worlds are queernormative, these conversations in the story happen differently than they do in real life, because the surrounding context is different. But I hope they still hit home.
AdriAnne: First off, WHEW, I also need The Butterfly Assassin! Anyway, writing an ace character didn’t come naturally to me at first because when I first began to write, I assumed everyone wanted characters who experienced sexual attraction. Realizing who I was and the breadth of possibility out there was eye-opening. (I, too, despite being married, have been baffled by the relationship between attraction and sex for a long while, but just figured I was “weird” and sexual attraction was “normal”–you can see that therapy also helped me.) So while there are many more ace books around now (YAY!), what first inspired me to write ace characters is that I didn’t often see myself reflected on the page. It felt very affirming to write Beyond the Black Door especially, where the MC Kamai is a sex-repulsed ace but also biromantic and interested in romance like I was as a teen. It’s confusing for her, and her journey from confusion and doubt and into wholeness and confidence in herself healed something within me. It was very cathartic. (And YAY for relationship resolutions that involve polyamory and ace folks! I did this in In the Ravenous Dark.)
Carly: The Reckless Kind was a book where I was just learning how to write, so I think it was also a book where I was figuring out my identity through Asta. The first draft was like—I want this girl to have very meaningful, close non-sexual relationships with these boys she loves… and then in later drafts I was realizing “oh, she’s ace” and then now I’m starting to realize “oh, she’s aro.” Like, I think society puts so much pressure on people to believe any type of closeness is sexual or romantic, and in writing and rewriting the book I sort of unpacked a lot of that baggage both in my characters and in myself. The followup books I’ve been writing do feature romances and allo main characters, but I also wanted them to be ace-positive so in many cases they have important relationships with ace characters and their interactions are very affirming. Like I have one character who’s in a romantic relationship with an ace boy and he pushes back against those “it’s not a real relationship if you’re not having sex” sorts of statements. And in the adult romance I’m writing, the main character has a relationship with a woman who’s aro and curious about some types of sex but repulsed by nudity and other types of sex and the conversations they have around those topics and consent are super important. I’d really like to see more characters in media and literature who reflect the reality of the spectrum of human sexuality and nuances of different types of relationships.
Rosiee: I love how much common ground you all have here! That’s the cool thing about the ace community and identity. But the asexual experience isn’t just one thing–we all experience this identity in different ways. So, what are some ace experiences you’d like to see more of in fiction?
Naseem: A lot of people conflate being aromantic with being ace, so I’d definitely like to see characters with all kinds of nuanced ace (and other!) identities. Not all asexual people are sex-repulsed, and some asexual people have sexual partners, and I imagine the same can be for aromantic-spec people—so let’s see the range!
RoAnna: Oh wow definitely seconding Naseem here. I want to see all the intersections and interactions between identities – trans aces, aro and allo aces, sex positive and negative and neutral aces, aces of color, disabled and neurodivergent aces – all of them! I also have a special soft spot for polyamorous narratives, and love to see navigation and negotiations there, between both people and identities. This is something I really got into in Stake Sauce Book 2, which is largely about Jude (our gray-ace, demi-aro and disabled/autistic trans guy MC) figuring out his feelings for several partners. Amid the Vampire Drama, he’s also sorting out which attractions are sexual, or romantic, or neither, and how it’s all rolled together with neurodivergence… it was a complicated, cathartic, fascinating, and deeply personal story to write. And also has queerplatonic witchy girlfriends, and cute chubby punk vampire boys, if y’all are into that.
Finn: I’d echo what the others have said about the range of ace attitudes towards romantic and sexual relationships. And I’d definitely like to see more books that explore the overlap between ace, trans, and disabled identities. Like, for me, so many of my feelings about my body are bound up in all of those things, and they can never be fully separated. On a related note, I think it’s also important to explore how things like trauma can impact on our sense of identity and self (and how that doesn’t negate the identity) – this is something I’m exploring a bit in the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, but there are infinite angles somebody could take on this, looking at how we’re shaped by our experiences.
I think I’d like to see somebody explore faith and asexuality, too, though it’s not a topic I think I personally could do justice. I’ve left my childhood church behind, but having grown up in an evangelical Christian environment where things like sex were wreathed in shame and guilt, there was a lot I had to process and work through before I could separate my asexuality from that shame and work out how I actually felt, all while also having a gender crisis (which I also felt guilty about). I imagine it would feel quite healing and cathartic to read a book that grappled with that – as long as it did it well!
Naseem: I’m once again screaming that I haven’t read all of your books already, because I need them desperately!! And severely want to echo what Finn said about the intersection of these identities and also trauma—the way I feel about my body is directly tied to both my gender as a nonbinary trans person and the way I inhabit my body as a fat person and someone with a history of eating disorders, among other things.
One thing that’s been frustrating for me is how many fellow aces conflate ace and aro identities. I mean, you identify how you identify, but just within the last few weeks I’ve talked to several people who have ID’d as ace, and when I’m like oh I’m ace too, we talk some more and I realize while they may also be ace, they really are talking about being aro. (Which is 10000% valid!) So more representation that dives into the nuances of these identities can only be a good thing for all of us! People who object to labels don’t, I think, understand the power they can have when we choose those labels for ourselves. It’s partially about finding other like-minded individuals but more about how we learn to describe ourselves.
Carly: I share what you’ve all said about just wanting more diverse representation. The world is full of a multitude of identities and experiences, but for centuries in Western literature only the heteronormative identities got amplified. We need to bring reality back into fiction and the reality is that the heteronormative experience is just one small part of humanity. I’d also just love to see more allos affirming and respecting their ace/aro partners, especially in mainstream media.
AdriAnne: Echoing what others have said, as well! Even within myself I’ve experienced being ace differently. I’ve run the gamut from sex-repulsed as a teen to sex-neutral and sex-positive as an adult, after learning much more about myself and what I find appealing. (I’m one of those aces with a sexual partner.) My gender-feels can also impact how I see sex–and yes, so can trauma, which I’ve experienced as a child and as an adult. So I too would love to see all the ace intersections because no one iteration is “correct” or any one “wrong.” While I’ve written the more common ace/aro combination, I wrote Beyond the Black Door for my teen self when I was sex-repulsed and yet romantic, and have also written a nonbinary, poly, and ace character in In the Ravenous Dark. I would love to see more alloromantic and/or sex-neurtral and sex-positive aces out there, as well as how asexuality intersects with everything from gender to race to trauma to kink to neurodivergent identities and to all other forms of queerness.
Rosiee: Yes to all of that! Here’s to more varied ace experiences in literature going forward–and what about the books that do exist right now? What is a recent read, an upcoming book, or even an old favorite with asexual representation that you wish more people knew about?
RoAnna: An old fave (and auto-rec) is the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman (starting with The Second Mango) – Rivka is a hetero-romantic demisexual and super-hot masked swordswoman, who gets to protect adorable princesses and also her bf is a dragon (and also super hot in human form). Is the book-crush coming through? Because wow. <3 Also may I say Tarnished Are the Stars? 😀 Because I just… really love Nathaniel still! On the more steamy/erotica side, I will still always rec Nine of Swords, Reversed and Eight Kinky Nights by my dear, always-beloved Corey (as Xan West), for many reasons but primarily their just mindblowingly-inclusive/positive/warm rep for kinky aces, as well as Jewish trans, disabled, fat, queer, so many kinds of people, they’re all welcome here. And an upcoming release that I’m a bit obsessed with is The Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane. Lush, wonderful fantasy with so much a-spec, trans, and polyam rep, so much!
Naseem: RoAnna, you keep mentioning books that grow my TBR, and I already have so many books on that pile, so… thanks I think?? At least Tarnished Are The Stars has been on my shelf for a while, since I always try to buy my friends’ books. I want to again point to the books I mentioned above, We Were Restless Things and the Skybound saga, and also The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong, whose main character is a queer ace.
AdriAnne: I will always shout about the aforementioned Every Heart a Doorway and Tarnished are the Stars <3 but a recent read I really loved was What We Devour by Linsey Miller for the ace protag and the deliciously dark relationship therein.
Carly: Seconding what everyone has said about Tarnished Are The Stars. Get it if you want great YA, steampunk style SFF and awesome on-the-page ace discussion. Another favorite which I feel like not enough people know about is The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter by KJ Charles which is just the sweetest, most-endearing and delightful ace romance between trans music hall singer and a man who’s a fence for notorious criminals. They’re both ace and absolutely adorable to each other. It’s probably my favorite ace romance of all time.
Finn: Doing this roundtable has made me really want to reread Quicksilver and see if it holds up after all these years, because it’s ages since I read it, and it’s not a very well-known one. (It’s a sequel – book one is called Ultraviolet – but I actually read it first, and that was mostly fine.) Unfortunately, my copy is at my parents’ house, and I am not, so I can only rec this with the caveat of me not having read it since about 2013 and I take no responsibility for anything I might have forgotten about it that would make me hesitate if I remembered it. I love VE Schwab’s Vicious and Vengeful, which have ace-spec characters, but I would say those are probably not under the radar these days, since V’s work has taken off so much. I’m super behind on recent releases generally, so I’m excited to add lots more books to my TBR after this!
Rosiee: Aww thanks for the shoutouts, everyone! Now it’s your turn–you’re all amazing authors writing important stories. Tell us one or two things about one of your books that makes your ace heart happy! Plug your work
Carly: If you’ve ever wanted to escape to the mountains with your two best friends and a bunch of adorable animals, The Reckless Kind is the book for you.
AdriAnne: Since Kamai in Beyond the Black Door is my only ace MC thus far, I’ll plug that book even though it’s the oldest! It’s a dark fantasy with a darkly romantic relationship at the center. Kamai is a soulwalker, someone who can explore other people’s souls, and while doing so she discovers a deadly force trying to break into her world–a someone she might be more fascinated with than horrified, and she has to decide where her heart lies. My other books only have ace side characters, but I adore them: Japha in In The Ravenous Dark is nonbinary (they/them), ace, and also poly; and Claudia in my forthcoming Court of the Undying Seasons is aro/ace (and a vampire).
RoAnna: Oh boy, self-promo, everyone’s favorite! (/Big Sarcasm) I’m still trying to get better at this – and it’s important, because I DO have a really cool thing coming up! Chameleon Moon was my first published book, and it features Regan, a very soft and anxious dragon boy (but always green and scaly, not shapeshifting), who has to navigate a dystopian, permanently-burning city full of super-people (all very queer/disabled/polyam), and also his own traumatized brain. In the process he figures out that he’s asexual (and PTSD, and definitely ND too, but I wasn’t consciously writing that yet), and finds healing and strength through found family/queer community – it’s a weird book, but still very important to me, and probably my best-known.
And, FURTHER SELF PLUG – it’ll soon be an audiobook! (With the best narrator ever, Kyle Rocco East, though I’m definitely biased lol). I’m running a Kickstarter that features not only the audiobook, but special edition hardcovers, exclusive art/merch, actual original songs, and So Much More! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/roannasylver/chameleon-moon-the-audiobook I’m ridiculously excited about this, and hope it sounds cool to y’all too! THANK YOU so much again!
Finn: The Butterfly Assassin is always a weird one to plug for queer rep of any kind, because it’s… it’s subtle. Isabel spends most of the book trying very hard not to die, she has got trauma coming out of her ears, and she is absolutely not in a position to be analysing her own sexuality, which means there’s not a lot of on-page discussion of it. Instead, the book’s ace/aro heart comes from the fact that I had dozens of opportunities for the plot to develop in romantic/sexual directions, and decided not to take them, instead foregrounding the various kinds of platonic relationships that Isabel forms. Thus, it is the All Murder, No Sex assassin book that teen me wanted. In the sequel, which comes out in the UK next May, Isabel’s in a much more stable position and she’s safe enough to start exploring her sense of self a bit more. She also finally has people her own age around her, and the result is that we get to see a lot more on-page queerness, which I’m really excited about.
Naseem: The Bruising of Qilwa has been out for about a month (it’s available in World English territories), and the audiobook comes out November 8! The world is queernormative (which also means transnormative), and I’ve got a list of both content notes and rep notes on my website, but the main character is explicitly aroace and nonbinary trans. While it’s a standalone, I’m writing more in this world (the novel I mentioned above is set 40 years after the events of Qilwa), so more to come! Any love for my little book, whether you can afford to pick it up or get it from your local library, is much appreciated!!