I was a teenager in New York City in the 1980s. My parents were artists, and I was queer. Which meant that, by the time I was 15 years old, almost everything in my world – from school reading assignments to dinner conversations — was about AIDS. AIDS and my bisexuality didn’t feel separable any more than AIDS and art did. I spent a lot of those years, and the ones that followed in university, lying to my parents and fighting our government. And in all the books I read, everyone always died.
When I first encountered Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint in the 1990s, it was lent to me by a suitor with little explanation. I read it, somewhat dutifully (I love when people recommend books to me, I less enjoy the time pressure of having them lent to me), with a constant startlement. Wait, I’d ask, are those guys dating?!? I had to keep flipping backwards and starting scenes over to be sure I was reading what I thought I was reading.
Some of that disbelief in my own comprehension was a product of the time; I was not familiar with queer narratives that weren’t about AIDS. I hadn’t read any, I hadn’t seen any, and, to a large extent, I hadn’t experienced any either. But Swordspoint, of course, isn’t set in our world. And Ellen’s deftness as a writer means that the world she created was saturated with a constant overt queerness that was always never announced. In the neighborhoods of her unnamed city in an unnamed land, same-sex attraction is so normalized and bisexuality is so ubiquitous, terms for them don’t even seem to exist.
But this queerness has not been, in many ways, what makes the world of Riverside (the city may not get a name, but its most infamous neighborhood certainly does), so remarkable. More, for me, it is the amalgam of time periods and class-related dilemmas that so reflect the New York I grew up in. In the world of Riverside everyone is brash, everyone is proud, and everyone is just trying to survive their particular and peculiar dilemmas.
These days, Swordspoint is anything but a historical artifact of when I first saw queerness without loss in fiction. Tremontaine, Serial Box Publishing’s serialized prequel to the World of Riverside books is now in its third season. Created and led by Ellen Kushner and with a team of writers, Tremontaine explores the City fifteen years before readers first found it.
While all of us are working within a set of existing rules created by the Riverside books and stories – Tremontaine represents a number of peculiar freedoms for each of us on the team. The collaborative nature of the process, based on a TV writers room, means we never have to suffer in solitude with challenging first draft, an abrupt case of writer’s block, or a sudden inability to find just the right word. But because of the source material — and Serial Box’s commitment to underserved voices — Tremontaine also means we never, ever have to worry about having too many queer characters.
In fact, queerness is so the overwhelming default in Tremontaine that the writing team (which is also significantly skewed towards queerness) occasionally has to be reminded to let a character or two be straight.
Freed from the constraints of our world, we don’t have to note that a character enjoys relationships with multiple genders before portraying those relationships. No one ever has to write a coming out scene. Our villains can be queer because our heroes can be queer. And, perhaps most importantly for our proclivities as writers, we can be as tragic and murderous as we want, because none of our characters ever die for being queer. In the world of Riverside, that’s just not possible.
Growing up as I did, the legacy of the AIDS era as reflected both implicitly and explicitly in queer creative work is incredibly important to me. I often argue with younger people about the need for both a freedom from our tragic stories as well as an ongoing acceptance of their necessary reality. It is 100% true that people – of all identities – need to see queer heroes and queer victories. It is also 100% true that the history of villains and tragedy in queer art created by queer people is not one that should be excised from the cultural narrative.
People who have lived those losses, and those fears, remain right here among us. I’m even one of them. Several people on the Tremontaine team are. While those stories are largely long ago and far away both personally and from the world of Tremontaine, they are not absent.
When I first read Swordspoint in my early-20s, it was revolutionary for me. While queer characters now abound in the books I read and the books I write, the world of Riverside as it has been expanded through Tremontaine remains special. For we have always been there just as we have always been here.
But in there, in that unnamed City, in our queernesses we are also always safe and never sick. We hope you’ll join us there in ambition and adventure.
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Racheline Maltese can fly a plane, sail a boat, and ride a horse, but has no idea how to drive a car. With Erin McRae she writes romance about fame and public life. She is also a producer and writer on Tremontaine, Serial Box Publishing’s adventure of manners, swordplay, and chocolate that’s a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s gay lit classic, Swordspoint.
Tremontaine: Read @ Serial Box