DiversifYA: Sarah Benwell

SarahFor today’s DiversifYA interview, let’s give it up for Sarah Benwell! Sarah writes gorgeously heartbreaking YA, travels the world, and eats spiders. I’m not even kidding.

Trust me, you all want to get to know Sarah better after this interview, so follow her on Twitter here.

We’ve asked Sarah our standard five+bonus questions, and her answers are spectacular!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Um… I kinda don’t, unless I’m cornered. And it’s not that I am ashamed of anything, or don’t want to talk about it, it’s just… Labels, man. I hate them. They’re so often horribly misused and misunderstood, and in the wrong hands a label – any label – can do so much damage. And people who assign labels often have a very set idea about what it means and a propensity to forget that a person can be more than one thing D-:

And because of that, and because nothing is ever as simple as it seems, when people ask me, ‘so, are you like, a lesbian, then?’ I can’t help but cringe. Because yes, but also no. More on that later.

I’ma go with ‘queer’ here, because it’s a nice, open, means-lots-of-different-things label which fits the diversifYA purpose and my own. And also queer = odd. Which, yes. 😀

2. What did it feel like growing up queer?

In one word: contradictory. I was pretty lucky growing up. My uncle/mentor/best friend in the world was gay. I grew up knowing it’s okay to be in love with anyone who deserves your heart. I grew up surrounded by a cast of individuals who were happy with and honest about who they are.

But half my family (really!) are clergy, and a few of them have views which I don’t care to think about. They are, in many respects, wonderful people, but there are still members of my family who know basically nothing about my life because that disapproval, that shame and anger and misunderstanding, is not something I want to bring out.

See. But then that’s life, right? Conflicting. Nothing is ever black and white. EVER. Use this in your fiction, please.

Also, the ‘bullied because I’m gay’ thing, it doesn’t always happen: I was bullied a lot as a kid/ teen, for many (stupid) reasons, and when I was accidentally outed at school by my then-best-friend would make everything worse. Nope; I found myself in a larger, stronger group of friends, and some of the bullying actually stopped!

2. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

* OMG, asking people out is 100x harder. That fear of rejection? Add, what if I’m wrong and they’re actually straight? (Because that’s the norm, right?) And also, what if they are totally offended/ freak out/ try to kill me. ARGH!

* For me – a shy, conflict-averse person – who to tell and how much to tell them and when, is a weird, untangle-able mess. Among a lot of people, I’m pretty much an open book, but ‘Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m gay’ is not always a good opener. Hardly ever, actually.
There are people I’d rather not tell anything at all, but if they asked, I’d have to say something because lying about myself is just not an option. And there are people who know I’m ‘gay’ but nothing more. And then there are people who get the long, complicated truth. It’s taken me a long time to be ok with this.

* Those HR questionnaire things on job applications and census forms and BASICALLY EVERYWHERE. What do you do with those? I mean, why should it matter whether I am gay/bi/straight? Or male/female/other? Or what my heritage is? Or who I live with?
Labels. Ugh. But also, I don’t want to like, deny who I am, right? So do I leave it blank as a form of protest, or do I give people honest answers and hope they use them well?
(I’m not even starting on positive discrimination right now.)

* And following from that, my biggest bugbear is that people assume you’re different to them, and that they know everything they need to know about you, based on one thing. This is stupid and inaccurate, obviously, and it never ceases to amaze me how often it happens.

* Now that I’m ok with ignoring labels, I get to like who I like and nobody cares. Which is awesome.

* That annoying drunk dude who won’t stop bugging me? ‘Sorry man, I’m just not into that.’

* Being ‘different’ (I’m queer/ginger/bookish/shy/was always the new kid) really really helps you to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and realise that you have the same sized feet. It probably has a lot to do with why I write the things I do. Difference/sameness FTW.

4. What do you wish people knew about LGBTQ?

* There are NO ABSOLUTES. Sexuality and gender, like so much else, are not fixed poles. There are infinite (sometimes moving) points on the continuum.
Until a few years ago, I would have identified as 100% lesbian. I went through the awkward teenage phase of working out who I might be, and everything was cool. But then, as a happy, well adjusted, secure adult, there was suddenly this guy. WHAT?! Cue crisis of identity and return of the angst.
There haven’t been any more. So I’m like, mostly gay, but a little bit not. Bi? Maybe, but he, so far, is the only guy on my snoggable list. Maybe it was just a weird anomaly, or maybe there will be more boys in my future. I don’t know, and I actually don’t care. I just ignore the labels.

* I’ve sort of said this, but I’m saying it again (and again, and again). EVERYONE has something ‘different’ about them. And if you look hard enough, you have something in common with everyone, too.

* *Speaks for the entire LGBTQ community* We really do not like it when you refer to terrible, inadequate, rubbish things as ‘gay’. Stop it now. Please.
Ditto, ‘so who’s the husband then?/Who wears the trousers?’. GAH.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Camp, Glee-loving guys
Strong warrior dykes

I’m not saying I dislike either of these things. I know and love plenty of extremely effeminate, flamboyant guys and incredibly strong women. But I also know strong jocks and quiet business men who happen to like guys, and gay girls who run from spiders and would not know which end of a sword is the stabby end. And everything in between.
I’d like to see them make it into stories too.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Do not be afraid. Characters (IRL or on the page) are people first and foremost, before they are [gay/straight/disabled/foreign/other]. And people are not simple. We’re made up of a hundred of these labels and thousands of experiences, and these work together to create something unique. There is no one way or one experience. So don’t be afraid; as long as you know your character, it’s difficult to truly fuck this up.

That said, please do your research. ESPECIALLY if you’re setting your piece in another place or time, or you really don’t know anything about your character’s life. You should. It’s your business to know. The internet is wonderful; it makes finding things out easy. And there will always be people out there willing to help by answering questions and reading your work. Ask.

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4 Responses to DiversifYA: Sarah Benwell

  1. LOVE your bonus… which sounds a little weird. I regret nothing. Great answers!

  2. this post was so informative, i’m so interested in diving into diverse poc’s , it’s so much more than a race and gender issue!