In conjunction with the release of BCS author R.B. Lemberg‘s novel The Unbalancing, Jaymee Goh of Tachyon Publications, the publisher of R.B.’s novella The Four Profound Weaves (2021) and The Unbalancing (2022), interviews R.B. about queer norms and sexualities in their Birdverse fantasy world, which is also the setting for R.B.’s stories, novelettes, and novella that appeared in BCS. BCS thanks R.B., Jaymee, and Tachyon Publications for sharing this interview.
(See this giveaway post to enter to win a free copy of The Unbalancing!)
R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse is a culturally diverse fantasy world named after its Bird deity, exploring different family configurations through its many LGBTQIA+ characters. Their newest novel, The Unbalancing, takes place some thousand years before their novella The Four Profound Weaves.
The Unbalancing is about an archipelago that has long since sunk, with a de facto capital of Gelle-Geu City. In the archipelago, there are five variations of sexuality/gender, represented by totem animals and axioms:
- Ichar (the deer: I leap sideways)
- Arír (the fish: I frolic in a stream)
- Agár (the snake: I am all the serpents)
- Rugár (the bear: I am both bears)
- Zúr (the turtle: I carry my world)
R.B. Lemberg and Tachyon Publications editor Jaymee Goh have a conversation about gender, worldbuilding, and the fabulous characters of Birdverse.
The Unbalancing takes place in the islands of Gelle-Geu, an archipelago where people of all genders exist on a spectrum of sexualities/gender identities. How did you identify the variations and choose the animals that represent them?
Birdverse has been rattling in my head for a very long time, and I no longer remember how exactly I came up with this. I knew there were nonbinary people on the Coast, which is a country does not exist in the beginning of The Unbalancing (the novel is set in historical times for Birdverse, about a thousand years before the events of The Four Profound Weaves).
Without spoilering too much, the culture of the Coast is directly connected to the culture of the archipelago. I knew that not all countries were accepting of nonbinary people, but it was (and remains) a big thing in Coastal culture. One of my first glimpses into the variations came from an image of one of my characters, who wears a piece of jewelry with a serpent. I asked that character what it meant, and they told me the serpent represented one of the five ichidi variations (my characters tell me things, I am lucky that way). So I started wondering, what are the five ichidi variations, and the rest of the images came to me. I think about nonbinary things quite a bit.
Is there a distinction between sexuality and gender identity in Gelle-Geu?
They don’t use these words, but there is a difference. The archipelago is very open, and they default to a kind of poly-queer social organization where one is queer by default and expected to be poly. One can exempt themself from being poly by saying that one is singular in one’s preferences or exempt themself from relationships in general by declaring themself adar.
It is not the same as in our world, where we both have many more words to describe nuances of sexuality and at the same time, too often still default to ideas of monogamous heterosexuality. They could be much more nuanced about asexuality, but they are not—not yet. This is a book set about a thousand years before what I feel are the main events, in which the ideas of what it means to be adar will be more fully developed. In particular, one character I hope my readers will meet soon, Ulín, is gray A, and it constantly frustrates her that there is no word for people like her; she knows full well that she is not alone.
Gelle-Geu is an inherently queer space, to our heteronormative standards. Some characters flirt and hook up easily, and the only restriction seems to be personal preferences (and, uh, personality issues). It is also a contrast to another more oppressive city we’ve seen in Birdverse, Iyar, and indeed, one of the characters directly mentions this. Could you talk about inventing Gelle-Geu as a queer community and how it reflects queer communities in our world?
When I was thinking about the Coastal culture in the context of contemporary Birdverse, I wanted to imagine a space that would feel welcoming to me as a person still looking for a way to come out as nonbinary. These were early days, a decade ago now, I think. The Coast is different from the archipelago; they have a lot of thorny history and issues to resolve, but they have many of the same elements—it is an inherently queer- and trans-affirming space—and when asked by outsiders why it is this way, they always talk about the archipelago. The archipelago in their imaginings is the queer ideal, a haven, a paradise, safe from outsiders and the oppressive heteronormativity of other places. Iyar is one of the more restrictive places in Birdverse, but there are other uncomfortable places in the Central North, which we should meet in future books and/or are in stories (such as Katra in “Geometries of Belonging”).
The Unbalancing is historical, and the archipelago is a queer paradise in the imaginings of people who live in contemporary Birdverse. I heard about it first from other characters who yearn to live in an inclusive island community far from oppressive countries—historically, the archipelago was one of the places queer and trans people would travel to to escape oppressive heteronormativity in their own cultures. (The other place of refuge is Che Mazri, the desert city that is the home of the Old Royal and of the Sandbird Festival.) The islanders live a life that focuses on queer joy. They love their parties and ceremonies; they are poly-normative and, to a degree, quite anarchist in their social organization.
The Starkeeper is also nominally the ruler of the archipelago, but it’s not an authoritarian situation. The Keeper makes sure there are teams who maintain infrastructure and that Strong Builders have a plan of which houses to build next and where, etc., but in many ways, people self-govern. It creates a very warm atmosphere, very communal and inclusive—a platonic ideal of a queer community in some ways—but I was also able to examine the fault lines of such a community. Adar (roughly, asexual people) do not always neatly fit in a societal structure that is polynormative and sex-positive. Because there is no rigidly enforced legal framework and people try to be as compassionate with each other as possible, some abusive interpersonal situations can be tolerated for too long. There is no enforced authoritarian structure, which is great, but it also means that at the time of crisis, preparedness is not high. During a crisis, they would have benefitted from a much tighter social organization. It is something they want to remedy going forward.
While we are still on the subject of representation, our nonbinary poet Erígra Lilún spends much of the novel trying to figure out their ichidi variation. It’s similar to how in our century, queer people have popularized signaling their sexuality with flags. Seeing as how Gelle-Geu is inherently queer, why is signaling your variation still important?
“Why is signaling your variation still important...?” Well, I’m going to put on my scholar hat for a moment. Our real-world societies tend to be heavily invested in gender. While specifics vary from culture to culture, our interest in gender seems to be very human. Our ideas about gender and what it means influences societies, relationships, and individual people alike. For example, within the category of “woman,” there can be many recognized ways of being that explain who you are to others. In Jewish culture broadly construed, it matters whether a woman covers her skin, how much of it she covers, does she cover her collarbone or no, does she even know or care about these rules, does she wear a sheitel (wig), or does she wear a snood, or does she cover her head with a headscarf, or is her hair uncovered, or is her hair short, or does she wear a kippah to the synagogue, or does she put on a tallit during services, and what color and size is her tallit, or does she even attend services, or does she wear pants or must it always be a skirt, or does she wear a skirt but underneath it she’s wearing a pair of jeans so she can quickly take the skirt off without revealing any skin, and I could go on and on, and that’s just Jewish women.
We are invested not just in gender but also in the performance of gender—in figuring out what it means for us and how to convey it to other people. On the archipelago, roughly a third of people are ichidi, but they recognize that there are variations in that category, and they came up with the five variations to celebrate and signal these differences. We do very similar things in our world, both in queer communities and outside the queer communities.
Both Semberí and Lilún express discomfort with the freewheeling allosexuality of Gelle-Geu because they are on the ace spectrum. We’ve also seen spates of queer communities being hostile to asexual people because they can “pass” as heterosexual. Do you want to talk about asexual queerness in Birdverse?
Birdverse is very wide, so I cannot comment on all of Birdverse here, but adar (ace spectrum) inclusion is a problem in the archipelago, and later on the Coast (although for slightly different reasons). The problem here is not with whether or not aces can pass as heterosexual (I actually don’t agree that in our world; aces can more easily pass as heterosexuals than allosexuals), but in the archipelago, the category of heterosexuality does not seem to exist, or at least it is not relevant—people do whatever they want in terms of their sexuality (they care about consent, and the age of consent, but not about the particular configurations). Heterosexuality is not an organizing principle of this society. However, allosexuality and polyam-normativity are very much organizing principles. Everything revolves around allosexuality. You declare your gender at your first adult gathering—whatever your gender happens to be—but it’s not very comfortable for people who do not want to go to an adult gathering. Because the archipelago is so loosely governed, a lot of things are happening at parties—people negotiate joint projects, come together as neighborhoods, etc., etc.—and the aces often feel like everything involves flirting and gatherings, and that can be very off-putting, even though aces are not formally excluded.
Lilún is demisexual, and they are not against being in a relationship in principle, but they struggle with casual flirting and with the pressure to be in multiple relationships. Semberí wants none of that stuff. You can just hear them grumping, “Stop kissing and get things done!” Ulár, who is a supporting character who is also ace, is cheerful about asserting his boundaries, but it gets tiring for him too. This is something I always wanted to explore in-world—both because I wanted to poke holes in the Birdverse myth of the archipelago as a kind of queer utopia and because of our-world parallels. I plan to continue to explore this in future books; it is something very important to me. Aces are queer, I hope it’s clear.
Just as The Unbalancing is a romance, it is also a tragedy, but the novel itself doesn’t contain the usual claptrap tropes about coming out of the closet or suffering because one is queer. What notion or definition of “queer stories” do you subscribe to?
For me, queer stories can be situated on a wide spectrum. I don’t much care what it is, as long as it involves queer characters and is compellingly written. I want all the queer stories. I love stories that are not about coming out, simply because I want us to move away from the model of the coming-out story as the queer monostory. But, on the other hand, I would gladly and gleefully read a great coming-out story, especially if it involves people who come out later in life. I love stories about queer communities, and I’m mistrustful of stories where there’s only one queer person; and at this point, I am extremely tired of queer tragedies, but I will read any queer work that’s compelling to me.
The Unbalancing was a poem called “Ranra’s Unbalancing.” The catastrophe in the novel is also referenced in your novella “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power.” So many connections! What do you find so compelling about Ranra’s story that she appears so often, at least at this point, in the unfolding of the Birdverse?
I find it compelling that Ranra pops up in my brain at various moments, swearing like a sailor (literally) and insisting on doing things I disagree with. :) People keep thinking about her after she’s dead, and she keeps meddling. I do love her and we will see more of her in the future, hopefully. Her story is so compelling—but Ranra herself is also super compelling. As for the various published pieces, my worldbuilding in Birdverse is built on the principle that we will hear many different stories about the same few key events (the Birdcoming is one, and the archipelago story is another).
Not all perspectives are going to agree with each other. “Portrait” is filtered through the narration of the Old Royal. The Old Royal is extremely wise, old, and majestic, so we believe them—but actually, they are totally an unreliable narrator. Those who follow Birdverse will see all these stories emerge from multiple perspectives—this is the joy of Birdverse, and of folklore and oral storytelling in general. There is never a monostory.
In so many cultures, honoring the memories of one’s ancestors is important, and there are so many stories and traditions of people directly speaking to their ancestors. Let’s talk about our favorite cranky ghost ancestor, who needs no pants.
SEMBERÍ!! I love them so much. Early on, when this character first occurred to me, I saw them walking across the landmass, carrying a star in their hands. It was a beautiful image—I saw them first from the perspective of the Old Royal of Burri, and it was extremely lyrical and mythic, as the Old Royal’s stories tend to be. However, when I leaned closer to see what’s going on with Semberí, I heard angry muttering.
So. Much. Muttering.
In Soviet culture, there was often a Book of Complaints in stores, a kind of large notebook where customers could write their complaints. I sometimes think Semberí invented the Book of Complaints, so in a way, they connect me to my own history of beloved elders who love to complain (live to complain?) and Instruct the Youth. Semberí is a ghost and has no legs, so indeed, they have no need for pants. Semberí also wanted to let me know that ghosts have no genitals (*) and so, blissfully for them, cissexist comments about their gender stopped once they became a ghost, as did flirting. Semberí does not want any flirting. They’ve always been nonbinary, and they’ve always been aroace, with or without legs, thankyouverymuch.
(*) Another Birdverse ghost has helpfully informed me that Semberí is incorrect on that count—there is apparently individual variation. This ghost will need to wait their turn to speak their piece, though.
Semberí is adar (i.e., asexual), but is there a word for “allosexual” in Gelle-Geu, or do we leave it as “those frolicsome flirterers”?
Adar does not directly translate to “asexual” in our world; linguistically, it means a person who does not want to be in a pairing, and on the archipelago, it usually means “a person who does not want sex and/or relationships.” That’s not what the word asexual necessarily always means in our world. As for allosexual, they do not have a word—yet. My linguistic worldbuilding is not mechanical—it is based on what I think their sociolinguistic situation is like. Right now, it’s not easy to be adar in this culture, and they could have been much better about it, but they are not. No culture is perfect, even a fairly utopian one. The fact that the islanders should have a word does not mean that they do. Lilún uses the expression “passionate people,” I believe, but I’m not sure if that’s what other acespec people use. Lilún is a bit stunned with how fast things have progressed for them—they would have preferred a more leisurely pace—but Ranra . . . happens.
Che Mazri and the Sandbird Festival are referenced in “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” and in The Four Profound Weaves. What can you tell us about the Sandbird Festival and its importance to the trans people of Birdverse?
Every three years, during the so-called Sandbird Season, the Old Royal of Burri hosts a festival in Che Mazri. The festival celebrates trans and/or nonbinary people, who gather from all parts of Birdverse, but primarily from all the places in the great desert, to dance and celebrate and attend performances. There is a lot of dancing, a lot of music. Music and dancing are considered acts of creation in Birdverse, and especially in the desert, because that’s where Bird first came carrying the Twelve Stars, and that’s where the guardians gathered to make music for Bird and attend her star-giving dance.
The pinnacle of the Sandbird Festival is the body-changing rite, which is facilitated by the Old Royal themself and their star, the Hillstar, also known as the Star of the Weaves. During this rite, those who wish to change their body can do so. It is not the only way to physically transition in Birdverse—as we see in The Four Profound Weaves, this can also be done on an individual basis with the help of one’s community. There are complexities to this—one has to have powerful magic to transition outside the festival, but there is so much magic at the festival that you can be without deepnames and have no problems at all. It is my understanding that the desert’s own magic participates in rites of change, and so it’s not something easily done outside Burri.
I do want to stress that the Sandbird Festival is not only for people who want to physically transition but for all trans and/or nonbinary and/or gender-nonconforming people to celebrate who they are. Some people come to the festival many times before they decide to go through the rite, and others never do. Showing up for the festival is in itself a trans thing, you know? It’s even a saying in Burri: “To show up for the festival.”
What stories can we find Che Mazri and the Sandbird Festival in?
I have not explicitly written a story about it, although I will one day, but it is mentioned in The Four Profound Weaves and “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” (please mind the CWs on that one).
In The Unbalancing, you reference the beginnings of the place we will know as the springflower city of Iyar, which is the setting for The Four Profound Weaves. It’s oppressively heteronormative and misogynist. Aside from it being a parallel to real-world places, how do you contrast it against places and communities like Gelle-Geu and Che Mazri, or even the desert nomads? Not to be a downer, of course, but it seems like a very big patriarchal elephant in the room.
It’s not the only patriarchal elephant in the room—there is a lot of variety in Birdverse in terms of social systems. Katra is quite terrible, and in general, the three countries of the Central North leave much to be desired in terms of LGBTQIA+ rights. In my world, oppression and freedom both exist, just as they do in our world. All political and social systems have their pitfalls. Not to spoiler too much, but the patriarchal elders of Iyar refused the volatile magic Semberí was bringing their way, and who can say that they made the wrong choice? In general, places that nurture the great stars tend to be much more inclusive and open, but there are exceptions there as well.
BCS thanks R.B., Jaymee, and Tachyon Publications for sharing this interview.