Monday, March 1, 2021

An Exclusive Interview with Shalen Lowell, Author of the Debut Novel Gender Optics

Shalen Lowell(they/them) is a transgender and genderfluid author, blogger, and poet originally from Woburn, Massachusetts, who now resides in Southern Maine. They specialize in fiction that represents the intersection of fantasy and postmodern genres and queer literature, with particular emphasis on illustrating, highlighting, and validating the lives, struggles, and experiences of nonbinary and gender nonconforming LGBTQ+ folx. Shalen has also contributed several personal essays and chapters on trans and genderfluid identity and expression, as well as dissecting binary privilege, to edited volumes such as Privilege Through the Looking- Glass; Massachusetts’ Best Emerging Poets; Challenging Genders: Nonbinary Experiences of Those Assigned Female at Birth; Expanding the Rainbow: Exploring the Relationships of Bi+, Trans, Ace, Polyam, Kink, and Intersex People; and Scientists and Poets #RESIST.

We recently had a chance to chat about their debut novel, Gender Optics. The back cover describes the novel as follows:

What if normative gender standards were legally enforced? How would our institutions inform and enforce these rules and regulations? What would be the consequences of failing to comply with gender expression standards? It’s in the midst of this maelstrom that we join Alex, our genderfluid and nonbinary protagonist who, during the thick of their adolescence, must navigate the choppy waters of lust, love, friendship, schooling, loss, and their city’s rigid – and perhaps lethal – gender expectations. In this world, Alex must constantly exchange their true self for safety and compliance, a relentless transaction from which they feel they never will escape. Can they navigate this slippery slope, alongside their patchwork community of friends and allies? Or is arrest and social persecution inevitable? This novel is an honest and raw examination of queer lives. Gender Optics illustrates, interrogates, and challenges the harmful products of binary hegemonic systems that all too often push gender variant folks to the fringes of society.

Congratulations on your first novel! Reviewers are calling Gender Optics “genre-defying,” “powerful,” and “a valuable contribution to the growing body of LGBTQI literature.”

Thank you very much! Writing and publishing Gender Optics is one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve accomplished in my life. I’m elated that readers are embracing these characters and this special story.

Please describe Gender Optics.

Gender Optics is the novel I wish I had when I was younger, just starting to explore my gender identity. LGBTQ+ folks face incredible amounts of adversity today and continuously defy the odds to live loudly and proudly, to survive and thrive in the face of contentious and discriminative policies that seek to erase our rights, voices, and lives. This novel is an ode to, and celebration of, the trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming communities and for those who continue to speak out for and fight on their behalf. We don’t see enough positive representations of these folks in the media, so I wanted to flip the script on that and show, while there often is struggle, living as your true and authentic self is absolutely possible. Suitably, there are dark moments in Gender Optics, but far more lighter and hopeful ones as well.

What inspired you to write Gender Optics?

Honestly, the everyday lives of myself and other trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people I know. As I say in the academic introduction to Gender Optics, the main inception point was feeling like I was being watched, judged, in public by others, strangers trying to “figure my gender out.” The awareness of that implicit judgement then snowballed in my mind as I wondered, “What would the world look like if gender standards and gender itself was legally enforced?” And so, the world-building concept for Gender Optics was born.

Jumping off what you said above about this being your first novel, what was the experience of publishing Gender Optics like? You must be excited to see it in print.

I am! The word I keep returning to is “surreal.” I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the last couple of years bringing this novel into the world—from the first draft stage to sending it to beta readers, reviewing and approving final proofs, the whole she-bang. The work often doesn’t stop once you submit your book to the publisher, but the team at Brill is fantastic and they helped me with every step of the process. As a result, I’ve published a book I’m immensely proud of and hope others enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Why create a nonbinary protagonist with they/them pronouns?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find LGBTQ+ literature that really does justice to nonbinary folks—and there are even fewer with openly nonbinary protagonists. Before I began the outline for Gender Optics, I thought to myself, “what kind of book on this topic would I want to read (as a trans & NB person)?” I knew for certain that since representation of nonbinary and genderfluid identities is scant, including a myriad of NB characters with a variety of pronouns and presentations was immediately important to me. And to comment on pronouns, I think cisgender folks are overall becoming more accepting of “nontraditional” pronouns like they/them. That being said, many more are uncomfortable with them so normalizing their use in writing is essential—again, especially since protagonists with these, and other “nontraditional” pronouns, are rarely represented.

Alex’s hometown in closely resembles Boston, MA in its cityscape and architecture. Why did you choose to name the city in the main narrative Springfield? Was there a specific intention behind that?

Yes, I’m glad you asked. Many of the locations in Gender Optics are inspired by real cities, towns, and locations to which I’ve been and lived—Boston, MA and York, ME among them. I wanted to communicate that, although the events in Alex’s life at this point and time are occurring in this specific city, we certainly cannot discount that they are not happening elsewhere in their world, too. I named their hometown Springfield because it’s a common city name—in the U.S. alone there are countless Springfields in a variety of states—and in doing so I aimed to illustrate that other locations and people are equally susceptible to these arrests, control by the Foundation for the Protection of Normative Gender (FPNG), and what have you. I wanted to extend the microcosm of what’s happening to Alex beyond just their city.

Was it hard to find a natural ending for Gender Optics? And will there be other books that explore Alex’s world?

Funnily enough, it was difficult to wrap this story up in a satisfying, but impactful, way. I’d originally written an epilogue that explains what occurs directly after the Springfield City Hall protests at the end of the novel, but after some input from my beta readers, I ultimately removed it from the final manuscript to end the story on a more impactful note. Removing the epilogue after my first draft served two purposes: the last line of Gender Optics offers a rewarding punctuation on the story as a whole; additionally, it leaves the reader wanting more. What will happen to Alex and their friends in the immediate fallout of the protests? Will there be change exacted on the FPNG? I often end my longer stories and novels in such a way that lends room for a sequel if I choose to write one. This will not be the last you hear from Alex, Ryan, and the bunch—eventually I intend to write a novel that simultaneously explores the aftermath of Gender Optics, interwoven with the history of the FPNG’s formation.

What’s your favorite thing about Gender Optics?

The characters, hands down. I love these folks. They represent the awe-inspiring kaleidoscope of LGBTQ+, nonbinary, and trans individuals that I’ve come to know in real life. Our community is a varied, resilient, and wonderful one, and I wanted to do right by them.

Who is the audience for Gender Optics?

Gender Optics is certainly relevant for students of, and those interested in, gender studies and gender theory, as well as those in sociology, LGBTQ studies, critical theory, and arts-based research. However, this novel will also attract anyone on a journey of self-discovery or self-acceptance. I’m certain many people, whether LGBTQ+ or not, will identify with Alex and their experiences.

What do you hope readers will take away?

Compassion for others and an inspiration to fight for equality. Gender Optics offers a dystopian exploration into what would happen if we legally enforced gender identity and expression. While on the outset, this may seem hyperbolic, the novel is a leveled-up illustration of the judgement that trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people often endure in everyday life. I wanted to make these feelings and experiences palpable and accessible to a general audience, so that they have a taste of the inequality this community experiences. I also want readers to take with them a sense of hope and potential—that if we, too, pour our energy into worthy causes, we can create a world more compassionate and accepting than the one into which we entered.  

Gender Optics on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Gender-Optics-Social-Fictions-Shalen/dp/9004445749

Gender Optics at Brill|Sense: https://brill.com/view/title/59389 

You can find me on Twitter @Shalen_Lowell

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