Is Ash lesbian or bisexual?

Over on tumblrtinyqueerme asked:

i loved ash, and it's one of the best books i've ever read. when i read it i interpreted ash as bi. but (as i learned today) your website says it's a lesbian retelling of cinderella, which would imply that ash and kaisa are...lesbians. are they? did i misread something? thanks for your time i hope you have a lovely day

Hi tinyqueerme,

Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed Ash. I’ve gotten this question before in recent years, so I’m going to answer it in a bit more detail so I can point others to this if they ask me in the future.

First, I want to emphasize that what I say about my books is only my opinion. This may sound weird because I’m the author of my books, but I truly believe that the author’s opinion about their book is largely irrelevant to readers once the book is published. My intentions are on the pages of the book. If I didn’t put it in the book, I don’t believe it’s important to your understanding of the story.

Second, since Ash was first published back in 2009, I’ve learned that when I say things about my books, people tend to believe that’s The Truth. But it’s not. The only Truth is that interpretations of books vary according to the person who is reading them. There is no one correct interpretation. Every reader approaches a book with their own experiences, and they engage with that book using those experiences. Their reading of the book is correct — for them.

Third, you’re asking about something on my website, not in the pages of Ash. These are two very different things. The stuff on my website about Ash is all in the service of describing Ash to potential readers. In order to describe the book, I use social and cultural shorthands to connect with potential readers. For example, I describe Ash as a retelling of Cinderella because many people already know what Cinderella is, and that gives them a general idea of what the book is about.

I have described Ash to potential readers as a lesbian Cinderella because lesbian Cinderella is a high concept type of description. This simply means the story can be described in a very succinct and easy-to-understand premise. Lesbian Cinderella immediately evokes a clear meaning for many people: It implies that the Cinderella character falls in love with a woman, rather than with Prince Charming. This is true in the case of Ash. If I call it a lesbian Cinderella, people get it. It’s a useful shorthand. It’s not the actual book itself; it’s a marketing tool.

If I were to call the book a “bisexual Cinderella,” I’m fairly sure that I’d get many confused reactions. This is not because I personally believe bisexuality is confusing, but it’s because I know that the general public (especially people who are not bi, or who don’t know bi people) still often has a really hard time grasping the concept of bisexuality. Among the many stereotypes associated with bisexuality are the beliefs that bisexuals can’t make up their minds, or that they’re constantly attracted to all sexes at the same time. These are obviously wrong and offensive. If I used the phrase bisexual Cinderella to describe Ash, I’m pretty sure I’d get people asking me things like, “So who does she pick?” Or “Does she date both a man and a woman?” Or “Does she wind up with the prince in the end?” Etc.

When I’m introducing Ash to new potential readers, I don’t want them to be confused. I want them to get it. Instantly. Lesbian Cinderella, in my opinion, helps them get it. No, it doesn’t explain all the complexities of the book, but that’s not what it’s meant to do. It’s meant to clearly pitch the book to potential readers.

Additionally, when Ash was first published, it was 2009. That’s seven years ago (and only receding further into the past). I started describing it as a “lesbian Cinderella” even before 2009. The cultural status of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women in the mainstream media has changed a ton since then. These days, people talk about sexual fluidity or being label-free; these concepts were much less widespread back in 2009. If the concept of label-free sexual fluidity ever becomes mainstream, that is how I would describe Ash. Because that’s what’s on the page.

In the novel, you’ll notice that nobody ever uses the word lesbian. They don’t use the word bisexual either, and that’s because the world of Ash is not like ours. There is no stigma against same-sex relationships in the world of Ash. Nobody has to come out or declare a sexual orientation because it’s OK to fall in love with whoever you fall in love with, regardless of their gender. In Ash, label-free sexual fluidity is the norm. Really, that’s what Ash is: It’s a label-free, sexually fluid retelling of Cinderella.

Lastly, I do understand that some readers are disappointed that I’ve described Ash as a lesbian Cinderella rather than a bisexual Cinderella. Honestly, sometimes I worry that pitching it as a bisexual Cinderella would be misleading because it doesn’t engage with bisexuality very much. (And I have written books that do purposely engage with bisexuality. In Adaptation and Inheritance, the main character is bisexual. She chooses to identify that way herself; she says it out loud. It’s on the page, deliberately.) So I wouldn’t want to mislead a bi reader who goes into Ash hoping for something more than what’s there.

But also — and to get a little personal — another reason I’ve described Ash as a lesbian Cinderella is because I identify as a lesbian, and I wrote this book for myself. It was the story I needed to tell myself when I needed the courage to be myself. This will always be the way I see this book in my heart and mind, but it does not need to be the way you see it. Your interpretation is equally valid.

Ultimately, Ash is a fantasy novel. It is deliberately unrealistic about some things. One of those things is sexual orientation. We are often pushed to label ourselves in the real world, and that’s why I wanted to write a world where that wasn’t the case. Ash herself sees no need to pick a label. She loves who she loves — just like the rest of us, no matter how we identify.