Today on the site, please welcome Matthew Rossi, author of the Nameless series. As I’m sure so many writers and readers of LGBTQIAP+ lit are familiar with, putting and/or seeing your sexuality on the page can be both a cathartic and terrifying process, and it also is, for many of us, a necessary one. To that end, I love this post about taking that plunge and the surprises me find along the way. And now, without further ado: Matthew!
There are a lot of reasons to write. When I started working on Nameless, I was trying to deal with a lot of issues in my life – my going blind, the dark place politics seemed to be going, my personal identity crisis – and the cast of characters in the books evolved out of that. In some ways I’ve grown up extremely privileged. I’m white, cis (more or less) and I can pass for straight.
But I’m not straight.
It’s taken me a very long time to realize that about myself. It’s taken even longer to get anything like comfortable with it. In fact, I’m still not. And one of the reasons for that is there simply aren’t a ton of bisexuals who are anything like I am in the fiction I grew up reading. When bisexuals exist, they’re often portrayed as utterly indiscriminate, people who flirt with anything that moves, and of course the old canard that bisexuality is simply a lie, that it’s gay men and straight women experimenting only or that it’s people who can’t commit. None of this was helpful to me growing up, and it wasn’t until much, much later that I understood that I wasn’t closeted or in denial – I was simply attracted to a range of humans that included men and women. (Since discovering non-binary and genderqueer people, I’ve realized even those categories are flexible for me.)
Writing Nameless, I wanted to depict bisexual characters who weren’t forced into the ‘will have sex with anything’ box or the ‘really gay/straight’ box or any other box. I also didn’t want to erase sex positivity just because the characters weren’t completely defined by their sexuality. Being bisexual doesn’t mean I’m constantly wandering around having sex with anyone that moves, but neither does it mean I don’t enjoy sexual contact (and just plain contact) with people. I’ve been married for eleven years to a wonderful woman (also bisexual) and I’m fortunate to have met her and have her in my life.
So when I started working on the book, the first thing I did was make sure there would be a variety of relationships – Thea and Thomas, the main characters, are a bisexual woman and a man who could best be described as genderfluid, in a very literal sense. He can and does change between a man and a woman several times in the series, starting in the second book, Heartless. Their relationship is frankly sexual, but it doesn’t erase who Thea was with before Thomas, nor what she finds attractive now. Their sexuality is part of who they are, not all of it.
The character of Bishop is a bisexual man in a relationship with Thea’s cousin Joe, who is gay (not bisexual) and the two of them were helpful to me in taking conversations I’d had with friends on the topic of whether or not bisexuality was real and helping me work through them. I’ve had friends insist that it isn’t, that I’m just gay and in denial, and it hampered me. Bishop helped me finally reject that idea once and for all – he knows who he is, who he has loved in the past and who he loves now, and he is nether settling now nor was then. One of the most pernicious myths I find when trying to come to terms with it all is this idea that you’re only bisexual if you’re in a same sex relationship. That doesn’t even make sense to me. There’s a reason it’s bisexuality, after all. Gender doesn’t even boil down into two easily defined options anyway, so this idea that I have to be with X or Y to be a ‘real’ bisexual has always felt destructive to me. I didn’t create Bishop to explore these issues, I just ended up having to explore them because Bishop loves Joe.
Thea’s cousin Seri is a different case because when I started writing the books, she was dating a long term boyfriend named David, and in the course of the first novel she met a woman named Evvie and it became obvious to me quickly that Evvie was so impressed by Seri that there was an attraction there. I decided to get out of my own way as writer, abandon my original outline and see where the two of them ended up, and they’ve since settled into a relationship that has its ups and downs and faults, and in many ways is less intense and committed than either Thomas and Thea or Joe and Bishop. And in a large part that’s because sometimes, people are complicated and just because you love someone, and are sexual with someone, that doesn’t spackle over the personality conflicts. Seri is extremely strong willed and Evvie has baggage and them being committed to each other takes effort and work, because that’s the cast for a lot of us whatever we are.
Writing these characters has let me look under the hood of my own thoughts, although that’s not and never was the goal. Mostly, I wrote a book with a cast that’s mostly bisexual or gay because that’s what I wanted to see. The books are about magic and monsters and epic, over the top action but anyone can be the hero, even people who are just people, and I wanted there to be a bi woman, a gay man and a woman who doesn’t know for sure what she is right at the forefront of all that.
But the character I’ve been most consistently surprised by is Bry.
Bry wasn’t even supposed to exist. Nameless had a trio of antagonists working for the main villain, two brothers named Morgan and Jimmy. Their younger brother Byron had been warped by the main villain into a monstrosity, a 9 foot tall mockery of a human being. Said monster was supposed to die in a confrontation with Thomas on Thanksgiving while Thea fought a Hound of Tindalos and saved the rest of her family. And absolutely nothing happened the way I wanted it to.
Tom wouldn’t kill Byron. Instead he managed to undo what had been done, and the child inside the monster was free for the first time in years. But that wasn’t the biggest surprise. The biggest surprise was that Byron wasn’t Byron. The little boy wasn’t a boy. The scene where that came out was absolutely a shock to me – I was writing a scene where Joe and Bishop were watching Byron and the child, still relearning how to talk, explained in halting terms who she was. How her wicked grandmother (the villain of the book, and in her way a victim too) had simply refused to accept that Bry was a girl and not a boy, and had used magic to punish her for not being what she actually was all along.
Since then Bry’s grown a bit (she’s fourteen as of Faceless, the last novel in the series) and learned magic herself, which she’s used to heal others and even aggressively in fighting off monsters and protecting her family of cousins. Bry’s journey and transition isn’t typical (the same magic Thomas uses to switch genders was originally created for Bry to transition) but she’s aware of that, and is still dealing with who she can trust and what she really wants out of life. And writing both Tom and Bry helped me deal with my own dysphoria and dysmorphia (I still identify as cis, but I have issues I struggle with) and what it means to be accepted for what you are.
I hope that the characters help other people – that getting to see a bi woman or a trans girl kicking monsters in their tentacles can help someone who is in that same questioning place I was. But the fact is, I didn’t write them so that their representation would help someone else. I wrote them so that their representation of bisexuality, gender and identity would help me. When I was growing up, I needed to see these kinds of characters and I never did. Everyone was straight, by default. If a man ended up with a woman, he was straight. If he ended up with a man, he was gay. The idea that you could be something else – an identity that was different than either, with its own challenges and consequences – never even occurred to me until I was in my thirties.
I don’t want that for anyone. I hope as more and more writers realize they can deviate from the script, people growing up will see themselves in more characters. I don’t know if my books will help with that, but I would dearly love to discover they have. If I’ve even partially succeeded in representing people, I have many others who took time to talk to me about their lives. Where I’ve failed, I’ve done so hoping to do better.
Buy the books:
Matthew Rossi writes things. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, and has lived in Boston, London (the one in England), Chicago, Washington DC, Blacksburg VA, San Francisco, Seattle and now Edmonton, Alberta. He lives with his wife Julian, their three cats, their manic little puppy and more reptiles than could easily be listed. His first book, Things That Never Were, was published by Monkeybrain Books in 2003. He’s since written two collections of essays (Bottled Demon, At Last Atlantis) and three novels – Nameless, Heartless and Faceless.