Aromantic Awareness Week may be over for 2019, but that doesn’t mean your Aromantic Awareness (or enjoyment of Aromantic fiction) has to be! I’m psyched to welcome to the site today an aromantic roundtable headed by Claudie Arseneault, author of books including City of Strife and Baker Thief and the brains/work behind the incredible Aro Ace Database. Claudie is also one of the editors of Common Bonds, a crowdfunded aromantic spec fic anthology, you definitely don’t wanna miss!
And now, I’ll let Claudie and her roundtable take it away…
Common Bonds is an anthology of speculative fiction with aromantic characters and platonic relationships at its heart. Finding this sort of fiction is a desire I’ve often seen other aromantic people express, and I absolutely share it. There’s an entire genre dedicated to romance, but when it comes to the other forms of bonding like friendships, you often have to rely on your detective skills to find stories centering them. So I teamed up with other awesome editors (C.T. Callahan, B. R. Sanders, and RoAnna Sylver) and we decided to make this a reality.
I obviously have a lot of things to say on the topic, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunity to say them, but I wanted to pass the mic to other aromantic bookish people not directly involved in the anthology and hear their thoughts on aromanticism, fiction, and platonic relationships. Turns out they had a lot to say, too, and it was awesome! So here we go.
Claudie : Hello and welcome to this aromantic roundtable! Before we get to the meaty discussions, please introduce yourselves a little!
Fadwa: Hi, everyone! My name’s Fadwa (she/her) and I’m a bisexual grayromantic Moroccan Muslim girl. It’s a mouthful haha. I’m a 22 years old perpetually exhausted medical student.
Lynn: Hello! I’m Lynn (she/they) and I’m a demiromantic demisexual author who is very bad at humour. (I was going for something humorous and failed.) Like Fadwa, I’m perpetually exhausted, though not a medical student. I was literature through and through. Also I ramble. You have been warned.
Rosiee: *Waves* I’m Rosiee (she/her), an aromantic grayasexual author, and I’m proposing we all take a nap.
Claudie: Proposition accepted, Rosiee. Let’s start with something fun. What are your favourite platonic relationships in fiction? Do you have any specific examples in mind? Why did those resonate?
Lynn : It’s cheating to say “Anything Cal-from-Isandor-related”, isn’t it? Honestly, these are my fave relationships just because Cal is a cinnamon roll darling. More so, he gets to be a cinnamon roll darling who learns he does not have to sacrifice his happiness for his friends. Like… The first time I saw a platonic relationship in fiction was in M.C.A. Hogarth’s Mindtouch and I love those books very much and I will love Vasiht’h forever, but the further along the setting goes, the more Vasiht’h seems to sacrifice everything he wants to the happiness of his partner and just… Well, with Cal’s narrative we actually have the opposite to some extent because Cal is in a friendship that is abusive, and one of the things he has to learn is that he matters too. I mean, he knows that, but he has some trouble applying it to his friendships. And that resonated a lot with me.
Claudie: Your cheating is accepted, even if it’s a bit awkward that you immediately jumped to my writing. ^^;
Rosiee: I had to think about this question for a whole day, to be honest. I kept trying to narrow my search parameters and think of platonic relationships that weren’t sibling relationships. But the thing is, sibling relationships are some of my favorites. I tend to gravitate toward relationships that I know from the get-go won’t turn romantic, and sibling relationships generally have the smallest chance of turning. Relationships like Anna and Elsa from Frozen, Katara and Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender, Lada and Radu from And I Darken have always called to me. Maybe it’s because I never had any siblings, myself, but there’s just so much to explore within familial relationships like that, especially when the characters are growing as individuals.
Fadwa: Like Rosiee, I had to give this one a lot of thought looking for platonic relationships other than siblings because sibling dynamics have always been my favorites too see explored in media. In my case, it’s because I have a little sister I’m very close with and love to see my experiences with her mirrored. And even when the dynamic isn’t the same as the one I have with her, I love to see how different those relationships can be from one pair of siblings to another. I actually love Katara and Sokka’s relationship, it’s just so spot on, they get on each others’ nerves but at the end of the day love each other and would do anything for each others happiness and safety.
Rosiee: I’ve also always had a soft spot for platonic relationships–and really, all types of relationships–that stem from a place of mutual respect. There’s really nothing that keeps my attention more than two nerds recognizing a pieces of themselves in each other and then working together to achieve great things. For example, Zuko and Aang from Avatar the last Airbender come together after a looooong time fighting, and their understanding of each other’s strengths is touching, and ultimately results in powerful friendship! The relationship between Luna Lovegood and Harry Potter, while not without its problems, also shows two people who have experienced great pain in life recognizing it in each other, and feeling less alone. I always felt that relationship was a lot stronger than anyone gave it credit for.
Fadwa: I also have a soft spot for people who bond over similar experiences (generally traumatic) and help each other through them, whether they live said experiences together or meet after the fact. I loved Rin and Kitay from The Poppy War, who become friends very quickly after realizing that both are the outliers at the academy and are each others’ emotional support through their brutal training at the academy and later on a brutal war.
Lynn: Ooooh, yeeees. Rin and Kitay were wonderful! I like how you both picked up on sibling relationships in fiction. I guess I’m the opposite of Rosiee in that. Not that I don’t love familial relationships – I do – but I don’t feel like I was ever drawn to siblings specifically. For me it’s largely cousins. There’s a real difference in relationships between the characters in the Famous Five by Enid Blyton when it comes to the sibling relationships and the cousin ones. I was drawn to those books so much when I was a child and, yeah, the lack of romance was probably a real factor in it.
Claudie: Something really prevalent in both of your answers (Cal learning that he matters too, mutual respect, bonding through similar trauma) is that sense of people treating each other as equals. Any thoughts on platonic relationships that have an inherent power differential, such as mentor/student and parent/child? Do those tend to work less for you, or do they need something different to capture your heart?
Rosiee: Mentor/student relationships can be so powerful and really touching. Jumping off Avatar again, the relationship between Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, always shines for me. Obviously there’s a familial relationship there as well, but the mentorship itself takes on such an important role in Zuko’s personal growth—it’s as much about learning to use his bending power as it is about learning to be a person. Other examples that come to mind are Harry Potter and Remus Lupin, who share so much in terms of grief and history, and Sallot Leon from Mask of Shadows and the other members of the Left Hand–especially in the second book. Sal’s relationships with the other members of the Left Hand are particularly fascinating from the perspective of age, since Sal is much younger than the rest of them, but they all have a shared responsibility.
Lynn: Hmmm… You know, I don’t think I do? But then I think most mentor/student relationships end up with the mentor dead, so… Yeah. (I like my relationships to survive the end of at least the first book. T_T)
Rosiee: One last example, which I’m actually uncertain about, is the teacher/student relationship between Numair and Daine in Tamora Pierce’s Immortals quartet. I found this relationship really interesting and touching for the first few books, but it does take a romantic turn that I hadn’t expected. I’m still very iffy on how much this impacts my feelings about that relationship. The mentor/student relationship, especially when one of them is a teen, should be a promise of a platonic relationship. When they end up turning romantic or sexual, it feels like a betrayal of that promise.
Claudie: I’m with you on that one, Rosiee. There are some mentor relationships I’d really like to see submitted to an always-platonic reader contract. One of the reasons Common Bonds has a platonic focus was the ubiquity of romance within queer lit circles, through call for submissions, lists by romantic pairings, etc., and how little space it left for aromantic people and for the stories surrounding other types of relationships. Can you share your experiences navigating those spaces, both positive and negative? Are there things you’d love to see more of?
Fadwa: I am huge romance reader and fan, which means that for a long time, even if some romances in books didn’t sit well with me, I didn’t really know why or have any negative experiences with the lack of platonic relationships. Then, a couple years back, I came out to myself as aromantic, and that’s when I started truly realizing why certain romances irked me. Sometimes I just did not feel like reading at all, because I knew I was going to be confronted with a romance I did not care for. And my biggest issue is with *forced* romance, meaning romance with no kind of chemistry whatsoever, and that’s there just to fill some kind of quota. I realized that the reason I consume romance books so much is because at least then I am making the conscious choice to read about romantic relationships and that they weren’t just thrown without having a point in the story, because a lot of the time, reading outside of the romance genre, I like the characters that are pushed together a lot better in strictly platonic relationships.
Claudie: Loving characters better in strictly in platonic relationships is the story of my life, honestly.
Lynn: I admit the prevalence of romance wasn’t something I paid much attention to until I started learning more about aromanticism and realised this could be questioned or challenged. Once you notice it you start to see how prevalent those romantic relationships are even, at times, in shows that are explicitly touted as being about friendship.
I’d want to see more awareness of aromanticism in general. Where do we go to tell our stories? The way queer publishers handle it makes it sound like there’s no room for us. There’s always the pressure to add romance. It may not always be the publisher itself, but the general sense of society. Like editors expect it because the audience expects it, which then means the audience expects it because editors do and tada! A vicious cycle has been created and it ends up shutting aros out.
Rosiee: I agree with everything Lynn said–it’s really disheartening and feels exclusionary to see those calls for submissions. Even when they don’t specify a pairing type, if it’s a call for queer submissions or “LGBT+” submissions, I often wonder if the “A” is included in that plus sign. Even organizations like Lambda Literary, who are supposed to be advocates for the community, don’t put the “A” in their acronym.
It’s the same with calls for submission, or even MSWL tweets from agents. It’s the reason why it took me nearly a dozen revisions of my debut to finally put the words “aromantic” and “asexual” on the page. I didn’t feel comfortable doing it until I was given express permission from my editor, who was absolutely wonderful about it. I think gatekeepers honestly don’t realize how much power they have to shape who submits to them. Self-rejection gets easier and easier the longer the world rejects you, and that’s tough to combat sometimes.
Fadwa: There’s also the micro-agressions that are so prevalent and normalized in books. They range from the classic “Just friends” or “More than friends” that I can mostly just ignore to the “What normal person has never experienced romantic attraction” that make me put the book down and never look back. Sometimes navigating media as an aro person can feel like a battlefield and it forces you to “grow a thick skin”. We shouldn’t have to grow a thick skin, we shouldn’t accommodate to things than can be potentially hurtful to us. Publishing and media as a whole should make a greater effort to create a safe space that we can navigate without that fear at the back of our minds of being dehumanized.
Lynn: Oh goodness yes the microaggressions. I honestly find that they bother me more the more I learn, especially when some of the classic ones you mentioned are so easily avoided with the only meaning lost being “friendship is a lesser type of relationship” which… firstly, no, it isn’t. Secondly, why wouldn’t you want to learn how to be more accurate with your language?
Fadwa: And exactly, those sentences not being there never changes anything to the story itself which makes them easily removable so why not just… listen to us for once and remove them?
Claudie: So, beyond publishers and authors making an effort to watch their language, are there any other steps you’d like to see taken? Resources you’d love to have? I’ve had a few publishers change their call for subs to explicitly include deep, meaningful relationships beyond romance in their calls after I pointed out the problem for aro people, but that’s only one element.
Rosiee: Publishers changing the way they describe their calls for submissions is a great step, but it’s very common to see gatekeepers–editors, agents etc.–use exclusive language in their calls for submission, even when they’re attempting to be inclusive. I’ve seen agents and editors call for subs by singling out m/m or f/f as if those two designations encompass all queer experiences. I’d like to see more gatekeepers make an effort to educate themselves about the identities they want to boost.
Lynn: Those are some really good points, Rosiee. I think there’s still a ton of awareness that needs to be raised in general. It’s easy to try to be inclusive of the most visible groups, but that just leaves the less-visible ones in the dust.
Rosiee: It isn’t allyship unless it uplifts us all. I actually recently saw this happen with an agent during a Q&A session. The agent was asked about writing f/f as a non-queer person and–trigger warning for aphobia and bi/panphobia here–the agent said that unless the author has had sex with a woman, she cannot write f/f. The agent’s statement was acephobic to begin with, but it also erases so many other experiences and identities that do not require actions to be valid, since sexuality is about feelings and attraction, not about actions.
Fadwa: That…was kind of jarring to read so thank you for the TW! at the end of the day, we’re all bound to mess up sometimes, you can’t get it right from the first try but things like this are just… a given. This is basically 101 allyship and at this point we should be past that, we should have the basics nailed down and be working towards how to be better and make publishing (and other industries) a safe space for everyone. So it’s kind of disheartening when we’re still working on the very basics of allyship. Take as an example Valentine’s Day. Being on social media was hard, because everything was so amatonormative and aggressively romance centric. There was so much emphasis on having a romantic partner and the fact that your life is lacking and that “you shouldn’t despair” if you don’t have one. Every other tweet was erasing or invalidating aro people. I wish more people were aware of the fact that there is more to love than romantic love.
Rosiee: That’s a really good point, Fadwa! Valentine’s Day is such a tough day because of the romance centric language used basically everywhere. I also saw a fair bit of arophobia disguised as ace-inclusion.
Claudie: Valentine’s Day is always such a mess. I’m glad we have Aromantic Awareness Week right after to wash some of the aftertaste away. Do you think your aromanticism impacts the way you develop platonic relationships? How so? In your priorities, the ways you choose to engage or not?
Lynn: Probably? I think it’s more that society’s view impacts it, though. You know that whole thing about how men and women can’t be ‘just friends’? That’s been really strong with some of the friendships I’ve had and I have moments where I’m just not sure if people will misinterpret the fact that I’m a touch-oriented cuddly person. That does not mean I’m into someone romantically (or sexually). It just means I like hugs and show affection through hugs. I can end up with anxiety because I don’t know how people interpret my actions and I worry about them thinking I’ve somehow tried to lead them on. And it sucks when you can’t tell people you love them platonically because the moment they reach ‘love’, they’re already misinterpreting your meaning and nothing else matters. Or possibly that’s just some people getting hung up on failing to understand aromanticism, but it still hurts.
Rosiee: Oof. That’s rough, Lynn. There’s so much communication that can happen through touch, and that anxiety is something I’ve definitely felt before. It’s so hard to know how someone else is reading your actions. I’ve also had a very opposite experience with regard to showing affection, since I’m not generally a very touchy person. I used to be a competitive swing dancer, and that community enforces an extremely allo culture, but also a very touch-centric culture (often conflating physical touch with physical attraction and gosh I could talk about that for paaages). People used to get offended or weirded out if I didn’t want to hug them after we had a fun dance or if I didn’t want to join the big cuddle pile, or didn’t want to go back to someone’s room alone with them for a “drink”. This has often resulted in some… not great insults used against me, and a general impression that I’m not fun. On the contrary, I’m actually a very friendly and outgoing person.
Fadwa: I saw a lot of myself in what Rosiee said, I am naturally a very outgoing and flirty person and not gonna lie, I enjoy flirting but I have been numbered a tease because with that comes the expectation of something either romantic or sexual, whereas to me, nothing means that I want something non-platonic unless I state that’s what I want. I detest the “mixed signals” culture because why would you interpret my words as more than what they are when they mean nothing more than what I actually say. This all has made for some pretty unpleasant, and sometimes traumatizing experiences that turned me into a person who always keeps people at arms’ length out of fear and anxiety that people would get the wrong impression, which goes against my nature of being an outgoing person. I especially love sarcasm and teasing people but that’s like the number one thing that always gets taken the wrong way. I’m always hyper aware of what I say and what I do and go out of my way to tone down my personality, because I’d rather that than live in constant anxiety.
Rosiee: I also find that a lot of people enter into conversations or try to get to know me with a romantic or sexual agenda, and that’s really difficult for me to navigate. I enjoy flirting sometimes, and since I am outgoing, I worry that can be misread. This means I often don’t engage with people, or I’ll sometimes bring up my identities in conversation as a buffer. I want to get better about asserting my boundaries without those qualifications, though, and I hope I can get more comfortable saying what I want and don’t want without feeling like I have to out myself to strangers.
Lynn: Those are both such rough experiences to deal with. I think it’s incredibly telling that I’m neither very flirty nor very outgoing and I still see a lot of myself in what you’re both saying. I actually spend a lot of time online curbing my tendency to sarcasm and personality for the same reason.
Claudie: It seems that it’s not so much how you form relationships that leads to tension or unfortunate experiences, but other people’s expectations of the relationship. That’s part of what I wanted to discuss, after a fashion? I’ve seen a lot of heterosexual colleagues decide whether to spend time with someone based on whether there was potential for a romantic and/or sexual relationship there. I always find it super jarring and demeaning.
Rosiee : Ohhhh yes, Claudie! That’s happened to me and it’s awful! The whole “friendzone” nonsense of people choosing to spend time only on romantic interests is really disheartening, and I’ve lost a lot of so-called friends after they discover I’m not interested in that kind of relationship with them.
Lynn: I’m so sorry you’ve had that happen to you, Rosiee. I think for me it’s why I seem drawn to friendships with people who generally aren’t attracted to people like me? That takes some of the pressure off because we’re both clear on where the relationship can go.
Claudie: The world is an alloromantic mess™. More seriously, and in an hopefully more uplifting topic, what are some real-life platonic relationships that were/are major for you? How do you think fiction could do a better job reflecting those? Or is it doing well?
Lynn: I’d like more friendship break-up stories. Sometimes those are bad and we have very little, if any, tools on how to deal with that compared with romantic break-ups. Fiction could do a much better job reflecting platonic relationships if it just… let them be as powerful and impactful as romantic ones. Ideally, I’d like it to happen without the relationship being likened to that of siblings too. We could do with more sibling relationships in fiction too, but not all platonic relationships are like that and I’d love to see fiction reflect a range of relationship types.
Fadwa: THANK YOU! Not all platonic relationships have to be likened to siblings. It’s not either romance or siblings, there’s such a wide variety of platonic relationships that just *are* and don’t need to be either.
Rosiee: THIS!!! We often treat anyone who isn’t related as potential romantic partners in fiction, and that’s just… not how it works. Friendships are so valuable, and so so powerful, and… I don’t know about the rest of you, but most of my good friends aren’t related to me.
Fadwa: Also, YES to more friendship break-ups!! I went through some very painful ones in my life, and I always felt like my pain was an overreaction because in all the media I consumed (and I consumed a lot), they were never given importance and romantic break-ups were just “the worst kind” whereas in my experience, friendship break-ups can hurt just as much, and more in some cases.
One relationship that has been major and somewhat pivotal in my life is my relationship with my best friend of nine years now. We were inseparable in high school, now life and school have taken us our separate ways -physically- but we’re still as close. There’s one thing to know about me, I’m touch-averse because of trauma, a lot less now than when i was in High school, but when I say that this friendship has been pivotal for me, it’s because this person is the one person I was okay touching me unsolicited for the longest time and we were very tactile at school, always hugging or holding hands or just having our arms around each other and not once has that relationship crossed into romantic or sexual territory and yet a lot of people sexualized it, asking us if we were secretly together, just because we were very affectionate towards each other and didn’t see a point in hiding it. And this is something I want to see more more: normalized affectionate touch in platonic relationships.
Claudie: The sexualization is awful, Fadwa. I get this with my best friend, too. He’s gay, but since we’re a man and a woman hanging out together and obviously very close, we keep getting called a couple.
Rosiee: I would love to see fiction reflect more relationships that aren’t treated like possible romances. There’s so much “shipping” that happens in fiction, where everyone is a possible love-interest, but I would love to see strong friendship-interests as well. And, similarly to Lynn, I’d love to see more friendship break-up stories… and then I’d love to see stories that also tackle repairing a broken friendship. In fiction, we see so many friendships that are just easy and require no work or effort, and those are often eclipsed by new romantic relationships.
One of the most impactful platonic relationships in my life is with a man, and what made this relationship so powerful was a combination of two things: 1. It was clear from the start, in no uncertain terms, that our relationship would never turn sexual or romantic because we had very different worldviews that would never be compatible in a relationship, and 2. We started our relationship off with what I thought was an irreconcilable disagreement, and then worked very hard to repair the wounds from that argument.
Claudie: Thank you so much everyone. This has been an amazing in-depth discussion, and I’m glad you joined us for it. If you haven’t done so at the start, please give us any social media, blogs, book buying links and etc. so we can link back to you properly!
Lynn: Ah, the age-old linking practice. XD [waves] I have a Patreon where I discuss academic papers about asexuality – send me your papers on aromanticism because I will pounce on them so fast lightning looks slow! – and my own writing, which features predominantly ace and aro characters.
Rosiee: Everyone should check out Lynn’s very good novel in verse, THE ICE PRINCESS’S FAIR ILLUSION! I loved it 😉 You can find me over on twitter @rosieethor or check out my work on rosieethor.com. If you like science fantasy featuring an aro/ace protagonist (and some sapphic lady romance too) you can pre-order my debut TARNISHED ARE THE STARS
Fadwa: I blog over on Word Wonders where I advocate for all things diversity in publishing, and am very active on my twitter and bookish instagram.
Claudie: Thank you everyone. And thanks to everyone who read through the roundtable, too! If you find yourself wishing to have more platonic fiction with aromantic characters, don’t forget to back our awesome kickstarter for Common Bonds!