Death, Stillness, and Exile – Three Prongs of Asexual Imagery in Fiction

Back in January I wrote a blog post about the relationship in fiction between asexuality and death. To my surprise, it really took off and started a lot of amazing discussions, and over the course of the year I have had the opportunity to revise and deepen my thoughts on the subject. So this post is an occasion to revisit the topic, and to clarify the ideas. You’ll note a TL;DR at the end of each section, which summarizes the information in easier chunks. I also put links to the works discussed at the end of the post. Onward!

First, when I wrote the initial post, I did not take into account how other cultures relate to death, and how it doesn’t bring the same negative connotations. I’m sorry about erasing that. While this post once again focuses approaches it from a white european (or of european descent in my case) culture, it does so because I lack the tool to address other cultures’ relationships to death. Please keep in mind the framing as you read on.

Rereading the initial post also reminded me of the place I was writing from. I was hurt. Every Heart a Doorway had turned into an extremely offputting experience for me, and I had sought comfort for that in a story people described as one of queer people healing, but which relentlessly posited that recovery from trauma required love and sex. Between that and running into more death-related aces, I was raw, and I think it shows.

Finally, the post talks exclusively about asexuality. The examples are ace characters. At the time, I did not feel I could speak about aromantic narratives a lot (I was just coming to terms with that). It is my assessment that this discussion, however, absolutely applies to aromanticism too.

Anyway, enough looking back, more looking forward? Because I have learned amazing things about narrative structures that surround asexuality and how dismantle them. I wrote the first post to point at a problem. This time, I want to unravel the problem and connect it to the larger narratives to which it contributes.

I won’t review every example of ace and death out there. I will, however, underscore once more how two of the most recommended books for ace fiction play directly into this trope. Clariel (aro ace) (from Clariel [1], in the Abhorsen series) is the member of a family charged with maintaining the barrier between life and death and literally becomes the main undead antagonist in the series, a corruption her asexuality and aromanticism made far more likely and are thus directly tied to. Then we have Nancy (heteroromantic ace), from Every Heart a Doorway [2], recently returned from the Halls of the Dead and eager to find her door to get there once more. It’s worth noting that Every Heart tries to distance asexuality and death in the text, though it is disputable how much it succeeds, especially from a structural standpoint. If you’re interested about the analysis behind that conclusion and how intrinsically tied asexuality and death are in Every Heart, I heartily recommend Lynn E. O’Connacht essay on the subject, which draft is available here. Absent from my initial post is Ellis (heteroromantic ace) in “You’ll Surely Drown if You Stay” [3], a Hugo-nominated short story which directly uses asexuality in conjunction with the death and exile tropes.

There are others—I had more in the original post, and I’ve found more since. I’ve also ran into several stories which reinforce this in subtler ways—descriptions of love and/or sex as a source of life, for example, or framing sex as the opposite of life. An excellent example of this from a contemporary ace story is in Tash Hearts Tolstoy [4], in which the teacher declares “that the motivation behind every single piece of literature is sex or death” which leads Tash (the heteroromantic ace protagonist) to wonder if that meant “the only driving force left to me is death?”.

I mention the smaller stuff because one of the characteristics of negative tropes is that they are pervasive. It shows up in narratives that have nothing to do with death because it is part of the way we broadly imagine aceness and the stories connected to it. This post is not meant to be a commentary on the quality of any of the individual stories mentioned, but rather to highlight some of the patterns in asexual representation. While death was the starting point of the discussion we’ve been having (at least in my circles), and very prevalent two of the most recommended ace stories, it is quite specific and doesn’t properly encompass what’s going on here, a fact that was first rightly brought up in a twitter thread by user Laura_The_Wise. So I want to look at two other related ace narratives that are directly connected to death and that show up in fiction: stillness and exile.

TL;DR: The ties between asexuality and death continue to be prevalent in fiction, notably in ClarielEvery Heart a Doorway, and “You’ll Surely Drown if You Stay” but also scattered through other asexual stories. They fit into two other narratives, that of stillness and exile, which this post will examine. This analysis uses a european/north-american view of death, something I had failed to acknowledge in my first post earlier this year.

Stillness

Stillness is the hardest of the two to pinpoint, in my experience. Some early academic essays looking at asexuality, such as “Toward an Asexual Narrative Structure” by Elizabeth Hanna Hanson [5], posited that asexual narratives were stories of stasis, in opposition to sexual narratives, which were stories of movement, of progress, anddare I say it—of life.

This connection has never been more obvious as it is in Every Heart A Doorway. Nancy’s world is one without colours, where people stand still as statues until they have “earned the right to stand out”. She makes the connection herself within the story, such as when she finds the very colourful clothes her parents packed in her luggage.

Those were daylight colors, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead.

It should be noted, too, that the main description of movement in the Halls of the Dead made by Nancy is when she attempts to dissociate her asexuality from being drawn to an Underworld.

[Nancy] would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld—so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all—except that none of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did. The Lord of the Dead and the Lady of Shadows had spread their ardor throughout the palace, and all had been warmed by its light.

In short, the descriptions of coldness and stillness related to the Halls of the Dead become talk of warmth and light the moment sex is involved. This also happens in the only other Underworld we are presented, in which an allosexual and presumably alloromantic sex character wants to return in order to marry his skeleton girl. It’s described as vibrant and lively, and neither the character tied to it nor the events are remotely tied to asexuality or stillness.

Stillness is also how Nancy tries to retain her serenity. She tries to move as little as possible throughout the story, and attempts to reproduce the statue-like immobility she had learned in the Halls of the Dead to control her emotions. Her ability to remain perfectly unmoving is frequently tied to a lack of emotion and to invisibility–two other elements often associated with asexuality.

Sometimes the connection between asexuality, aromanticism, and stillness comes up differently. For example, Hanna in Survival Rout [6] is strongly coded as asexual, and her power entails being indestructible. She cannot be harmed (though she feels the pain). Her body always heals and returns to status quo, however: she is the immovable rock against which injuries shatter.

When it comes to imagery, stillness is not always literal and might be better understood as stasis. Every Heart a Doorway provides a stark example, but this is a piece of imagery I most often find associated with other typical ace characteristics, whether they are invisibility, a lack of emotions, or death. I’m curious to see what other shapes it can take as I continue to read, and to understand better where it fits in the larger patterns of asexual representation.

TL;DR: Early academic papers on asexual narratives deemed in one of stasis. Life is often associated with movement and colours. Every Heart A Doorway clearly does this repeatedly, in addition to tying Nancy’s skills at becoming statue-like with invisibility and a lack of emotion.

Exile

One of the most frequent narrative for asexual characters is to have them removed from society by the end of the story. Sometimes they are straight up killed in a good old Bury Your Gays fashion, but often it is more subtle, though not less harmful. Asexual and aromantic characters are often depicted as loners. They have no friends, they don’t understand people, and they prefer to stay by themselves, a step removed from the community around them.

This is precisely the case of Clariel. She wants to be alone and live in her forest. Her happiness relies on being mostly in isolation. But hey, let it not be said the novel allowed that to happen. Instead, this desire to be alone–one that is deeply tied into her asexuality and aromanticism–makes her more susceptible to corruption, and she eventually succumbs and must leave everything behind, quite literally exiled. Clariel doesn’t even get her happy ending.

Yet it seems that even characters who do develop a community don’t get to keep them. Nancy, for example, befriends several other kids at her boarding school and even grows a romantic relationship with one of them. She arrives alone and treated as an outsider, but throughout the story builds a team of people on which she relies. Yet what happens at the end of the story? Nancy finds her door, and leaves everyone she met through the story to return play statue alone in her undead world. Since we barely get to know the kind of community she might have over there, the impact of this narrative decision is a self-exile. Similarly, Clariel leaves everything behind at the end of her narrative, to be transformed by ‘free magic’ in the series undead villain.

Another form exile narratives frequently take is when an ace protagonist leaves their romantic partners (sometimes along with the community, sometimes separately). While in Nancy’s case it is a consequence of her decision to return to the Halls of the Dead, the trope is played more directly in “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay”. At the end of the story, Ellis pushes Marisol, the girl he loves, to leave him before he returns to the desert, where the bones of the dead await him. 

It’s important to note that this is particularly harmful because Ellis’ asexuality has been used throughout the story to reinforce his otherness, and that otherness has driven the plot. Asexuality thus becomes an essential component in why he leaves, and the underlying lesson here is that asexual people cannot integrate regular society, have fulfilling and stable romances, and that they will end alone. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” even goes as far as directly stating that, directly following the line that implies Ellis is asexual to a reminder that he should not expect a happy ending.

God, you love her so much. And not the way so many men desire women; you’ve never felt that, for anyone, in all your life. But Marisol has never touched you that way, and the warmth of her body here, now, is more than enough.

Still, the preacher man’s words ring in your ears. You will always end up alone.

Similarly, the asexual protagonist of The Trouble With Grace [7] sends her husband after the man he love, promising that she couldn’t be happy if they weren’t together. This is the logical conclusion to a novel which has set her up as an obstacle to the relationship between two queer men from the beginning, and which frequently reiterates that she wouldn’t be enough to make her husband happy.

The idea alloromantic aces are unworthy romantic partners is so prevalent that it shows up in the form of aces pushing away their allosexual partners or trying to prove “this will be too hard”. As Tabitha O’Connell pointed out in a twitter thread, this happens with Tash in Tash Heart Tolstoy—she literally strips in front of her romantic interest to prove to him it would be too hard to resist, and that his attraction would make him miserable.  This was an idea often brought up in The Trouble With Grace, too, although Grace instead concludes that she would do her “marital duties” if her husband insisted. These attempted self-exiles also often lead to Allo Saviour tropes, as they make the ace’s happiness dependent on an alloromantic character’s acceptance of them–a whole other discussion we could have regarding asexuality in fiction.

This exile trope telegraphs to aces that they don’t belong, that they are outsiders to society, and that they cannot expect happy relationships. It relies on solid allo- and amatonormativity and posits that the only relationships that count—the only “normal”—are both sexual and romantic. Little room is made for platonic relationships (friends, mentors, family, etc.) and conversations between potential partners about what are the romantic and sexual components of the relationship (if any) are nonexistent. You either meet the standard or it’s an unhappy relationship. And if it’s unhappy, the asexual and/or aromantic character is to blame and must leave or make amends.

TL;DR: Asexual characters frequently leave their community at the end of the story. Nancy and Clariel both self-exile to effectively become dead, though in Nancy’s case it is noteworthy that she thinks of the Underworld as home. Other characters instead chase their romantic partners away. This happens in different forms in “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay” and The Trouble With Grace. Tash also attempts to push away her love interest by stripping in front of him to prove a relationship without sex would be too hard. Exile tropes strongly imply that asexual characters are meant to be alone and cannot have fulfilling relationships, no matter their nature.

A Conclusion

Few asexual narratives exist distinct from one another. For example, both Nancy in Every Heart a Doorway and Ellis in “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” explicitly consider that they belong with the dead, and call places where they roam ‘home’. Both of them choose to live in those places at the end of their respective narrative, combining the exile story structure with the strong death association. It’s also noteworthy to me that stories from ace spectrum authors reproduce these patterns too, although they tend to be less heavy-handed with them, or to try to detach them from asexuality.

I started this analysis to explain and bring to light some of the ways we collectively represent asexuality, and how these themes build upon each other to create was is at its heart a fairly negative imagery. The goal, however, isn’t to lay blame on any of the stories mentioned above—they are part of bigger patterns which we should all pay attention to. Asexuality is not a condemnation of loneliness and exile. It is not a sign of stagnation. But I remember how dismayed and hurt I was in January, in that first post, and looking back, I’m glad we are having this conversation. I’m glad that we have enough stories to see the patterns, and also that there are many characters that don’t follow it at all.

For all that ace and aro rep often feels abysmal, writing analysis like these gives me hope: it lets me believe that we can learn and do better, that this is a problem with clear solutions, and that I am doing something to change the state of things. So rest assured, this is only the beginning. There will be more (on Patreon, though!). 

If you learned from this, you can tip me!

TL;DR: Exile, Death, and Stillness often come up in conjunction with asexual characters and are tied in our collective imagery of asexuality. This isn’t meant as an attack on the quality of individual examples—they are part of a pattern, one we can now hopefully work on changing! Also, essays are fun, they make me feel like I can change things, and I will be doing more. Learned from this? You can tip me!

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[1] Clariel, Garth Nix, published by HarperCollins

[2] Every Heart A Doorway, Seanan McGuire, published by Tor.

[3] “You’ll Surely Drown If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong, Uncanny Magazine.

[4] Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Kathryn Ormsbee, published by Simon & Schuster

[5] Essay published in Asexualities edited by Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks

[6] Survival Rout, Ana Mardoll, published by Acacia Moon Publishing

[7] The Trouble With Grace, Jenn LeBlanc, published by Illustrated Romance

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