Laura Lam’s debut novel, Pantomime (published by Strange Chemistry), is a beautifully written fantasy set in a world of circuses and lost civilizations, starring a young character named Micah Grey who is both a trapeze artist and one of very few intersex ((According to the Intersex Society of North America, "‘Intersex’ is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male." For more information, go here.)) characters ever seen in a young adult novel. ((Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman, published by Text in Australia, is another YA novel about an intersex teen.)) I loved this book for its intricately imagined world and for Micah, who is relatable and complex, and I can’t wait to read more of Micah’s story in the sequel, Shadowplay, which is coming soon. I asked Laura to tell us a bit about the book and about writing an intersex character.
Malinda Lo: What drew you to write about an intersex character?
Laura Lam: A variety of factors. I’ve always been interested in characters who change their gender presentation in fiction—growing up I loved reading about girls who dressed up as boys to show they could do whatever boys could do. I suppose I wanted to write about a girl who dresses as a boy, but that it’s not necessarily a disguise, either. I hadn’t read many books about people who straddled the gender divide, and so decided to add one more.
ML: One of the things I really loved about Pantomime was Micah’s world. Did you have any real-world inspirations for the places and cultures you describe in Pantomime?
LL: I had a lot of fun creating the world of Ellada and the Archipelago. It’s based on Victorian culture, and women wear corsets and men cravats, and social standing and class is very important to them. I live in Aberdeen, Scotland, which has a lot of Victorian architecture in granite, so I imagined Imachara as a huge, massive, sprawling metropolis with some of the same dark, imposing granite.
However, I made my Victoriana age a little different in that they had remnants of technology or magic from a vanished, advanced civilization called the Alder. I like the quote by Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so I played with that. So this Victorian-ish society has laser beams and advanced weapons, but once that breaks, they have no idea how to fix it. This means that though Ellada had once been a great Empire with the most Alder Vestige weapons and had the other islands as colonies, now the weapons are breaking down and the colonies have seceded. Ellada is now a decaying empire that must adapt or die.
ML: The jacket copy for Pantomime implies that there are two main characters in the novel, when in fact there is only one. I admit when I first read the copy, I didn’t quite recognize the book.
R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
I understand that jacket copy is meant to sell a book to the widest potential audience — the jacket copy for my own Ash in the U.K. omits the gay stuff completely. And, of course, Pantomime isn’t an “issue” book. It would be misleading for cover copy to imply that Pantomime was only about the issues of being intersex; it’s about much more than that. How do you feel about the Pantomime cover copy?
LL: Tricky! I will say that I wrote Pantomime without anticipating Micah’s intersex nature being kept under wraps. In the first draft it was revealed in the 2nd chapter, but now it’s in the 7th. In the end, the idea to have it be a surprise was the publisher’s precisely because it’s not an issue book—it’s a fantasy that happens to have an intersex protagonist. A lot of people really enjoyed being surprised and having their expectations twisted. Some people thought Gene and Micah would be a couple—but surprise! They’re the same person.
However, the cover copy has caught some flak for being misleading. There’s no way to know how the book would have been received had the cover copy been different. So I’m fence-sitting. I don’t dislike the cover copy, but I can see why people have been upset by it. At the end of the day, I’d like as many people to step into Micah’s shoes as possible.
ML: You’ve done a lot of blog Q&As about Pantomime, and you’ve written a lot about the research you did on intersex people. Is there anything you haven’t been asked but have been dying to talk about?
LL: Good question! A lot of people don’t seem to realize how prevalent it is to still operate on intersex infants and young children to “normalize” their sex. It happens all the time. A lot of the time they choose to make a maybe with ambiguous genitalia female, because it’s easier to cut/shave down a clitoris. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that can basically castrate the baby. So not only is there a high chance that medical professionals can choose to give the child a sex that doesn’t match the gender she/he will grow up to identify with, but they might not be able to have sexual pleasure. Also, a lot of the time there can be complications to the initial surgery, so the child will grow up having to have many more surgeries, and usually that’s shrouded in secrecy and shame, which I think is awful.
I’d love it if they stopped performing non-essential surgeries on infants with ambiguous genitalia and let them decide for themselves when they are older. If you’d like to learn more I recommend the book Intersex by Catherine Harper or the BBC documentary Me, My Sex, and I.
ML: I understand there’s a sequel to Pantomime. When does that come out, and can you tell us anything about it?
LL: Yes, there is! The sequel is called Shadowplay and will be released January 2014—not long now! It’s set on the magic stage instead of a circus ring, with Micah learning grand stage illusion and sleight of hand. It has a duel, magic, Chimaera ghosts, a clockwork hand, mystery, and the delicate unfurling of new love. I’m really pleased with how the book turned out, and I hope that those who enjoyed Pantomime will enjoy Micah’s continued journey.
Want to win a copy of Pantomime? Don’t forget to check out the Giant YA Pride 2013 Giveaway!