The Power of Whimsy and Magic in Queer Stories

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Before the rose was there, the garden was full of moss. I started as a seed under it, waiting for the right time to sprout. Clover waited, and waited, and tended the garden, and didn’t listen to anyone who said she should give up. Moss, my other mother, she waited too. But Clover was the one who came out every morning and told me about her night, what she was planning on cooking that day, how Moss was going. […]

When my first two leaves emerged, Moss and Clover knew I would be okay.

I didn’t mean to be a strange baby made of plants, but it hasn’t caused any problems.

So begins Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids, with the narrator, Iris, matter-of-factly regaling us with the tale of the beginning of their life: intermingled wordlessly with magic and a kind of dream-logic bizarreness, and intermingled effortlessly with queer love and affection. This sets the tone for the whole book: a dreamy, whimsical tale of understated magic that is almost rebelliously committed to letting its protagonists be.

Iris is one of three main characters in the novel: they’re non-binary and grew out of a seed in the ground, though these two things are never connected by the text (i.e. Iris is perfectly human, and chose their identity labels, rather than being an alien or otherworldly creature “without a gender”). They make friends with Babs, a trans girl made of fire who was cursed by a witch as a child so she’s invisible most of the time. She’s ecstatic when Iris can see her, and the two quickly realise that between the experience with magic, the not-being-cis, and their love for tea, they have a few things in common. When a trans boy moves to their school—a boy who remains simply “the boy” for most of the book, as he hasn’t picked (or rather, found) his name yet—Iris and Babs take him under their wing and together the three spend many an hour sipping honeyed tea, bonding over movies, helping each other experiment with their hair, and picnicking in a woodland Otherworld populated by faeries and dryads. You know, normal teen stuff.

Euphoria Kids is best described as whimsical—a review quote from Katya de Becerra describes it as “pure magic! Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli” and the more of the book I read, and the more I let it settle in my brain, the more that comparison rang true. The overflowing cottage gardens belonging to witchy families and laid-back artists bring Kiki’s Delivery Service to mind, and the soft embrace of the rambling, overgrown forest where the kids seek solace among magical creatures may make you think of My Neighbour Totoro. The business of witches laying curses on young girls may even jog your memory of Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

But even aside from the dreamy landscapes and the magic woven into them, the dreamy tone is maybe where the best comparison is drawn: while the studio does more epic fantasy very well (think Princess Mononoke) they have a special knack for quieter, more personal, more whimsical and atmospheric fantasy (think Kiki, Ponyo). These movies are best known for transporting their audience to a soothing, green and windswept world, cluttered with rich detail and alive with quirky magical creatures skittering between the characters’ feet and constantly reminding you that nothing is just so in this place. For many people, they’re a high-ranked source of escapism that gives you a break from the dull colours of reality for a few hours, and lulls you into a sweet, soft sleep… and when you wake up, you may well be compelled to run outside to breathe the fresh air, and maybe clean your house and make some art or good-looking food.

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I talk a lot here about the importance of queer genre fiction: stories about LGBTQIA+ heroes fighting supervillains, saving the galaxy, riding dragons, and generally going on daring quests that aren’t rooted in the traditional trappings of oh how hard it is to be queer in the hetero world. But Euphoria Kids reminded me that there’s definitely something powerful about whimsy as a narrative device, too, and in these softer, kinder, lower stakes stories.

In the eyes of many, the queer narrative—and especially the trans narrative—is a narrative of suffering. Not being cis is typically associated with the idea of hating your body and having an awful life: looking mournfully at your “mismatching” body in the mirror (then probably binding improperly, if we’re really sticking to movie tropes), facing transphobia and misunderstanding everywhere you go, having to correct people constantly, and not being allowed to be your true self. And there is some validity to this narrative, since, historically, the world has not been a kind place for people outside the norm. But most people also generally agree that we can and should move forward and do better. For one thing, this woeful narrative is often much the same, and doesn’t account for the fact that everyone’s experience with their gender, their sexuality, and their body, will be different. Mainstream stereotypes are also a bit confused, I think, by the idea of trans people just, like… loving themselves and enjoying their lives, and having adventures day-to-day.

It’s exactly this that makes Euphoria Kids so quietly rebellious: it gives us a story of three trans kids (each with a different experience with their identity, and at a different place in their exploration and expression of it) loving themselves and enjoying their lives, carried along on a whimsical, dreamy, magical narrative where their gender identity is treated as matter-of-factly as the presence of faeries in the backyard. It would be incorrect to say that the three characters’ genders are “not a big deal”, because they are—they swap pronouns when they meet, they talk a lot about their different experiences with gender, and they exchange advice, particularly when it comes to helping the boy become more confident with being his true self and allowing that self to take up space in the world.

They bond together specifically because they have their transness in common, though this is injected with a bit of whimsy as well. The boy, who is still mostly presenting as female at school, asks how Babs recognised that he was really a boy, and she shrugs and suggests it might have something to do with magic. There’s obviously a metaphor at work in the fact that Iris and the boy are some of the few people who can consistently see Babs, whereas she’s usually invisible, but overall the novel isn’t heavy-handed about it. The fantasy is extremely liminal (as good ol’ Mendlesohn would say) and matter-of-fact, which suits these three liminal, in-between kids too. You can’t separate the threads of trans character development from the threads of magical narrative: they’re intricately woven together into the big cosy, cable-knit rug that is this book.

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An antagonistic force rears its head more and more as the novel heads for its climax, but overall it is such a quiet, gentle, kind narrative that I almost want to call it magical slice-of-life (a trans answer to Flying Witch, if you want another anime comparison thrown in). The pace is slow, burbling like a creek over pebbles. The stakes are low, and there are few enemies outside of the very fantastical figure of Babs’ old curse-caster. Apart from Iris having to explain their non-binary-ness to a couple of naïve characters, and the boy being deadnamed by teachers (something the novel deliberately refuses to engage with, hence calling him “the boy” until he finds his true name), there is no overt transphobia in the narrative: no token school bullies, no microaggressions, no scenes of self-loathing as the characters look at their reflections. Their parents are all accepting and supportive. They all unconditionally love and support each other. The dryads and faeries make sure to get everyone’s pronouns right, even if they may not ascribe to mortal human concepts of gender.

It’s just nice. And if you say that sounds boring, well, there’s a chance that this isn’t the book for you; for after all this is a matter of personal taste, and you probably don’t like Kiki’s Delivery Service either. But if you jump to call this boring and pointless, I’d say you’d missed the point. It’s so important for queer people (of any age) to be able to slip into stories like this: story worlds where they know they can just be, floating through narratives of whimsy and gentleness, where they can see their community reflected and they can see themselves at the heart of a story that’s as soft as a dream. It’s a special kind of quiet escapism that is so very valuable, especially in the turbulent world in which we currently live.

Evans seems keenly aware of this, and that’s what makes me confident in calling this book “quietly rebellious”: the dedication at the front of the novel reads thus:

I write these stories because I can’t get the fifteen-year-old me out of my head, the one who was so scared because they thought they were alone. I don’t want anyone else to feel that.

I want people to know about gender euphoria. I want them to learn about it before gender dysphoria. I want the young trans kids that will read this book to be proud of who they are, and imagine wonderful, magic lives for themselves.

There is such a power in imagination, after all. If this sounds like your jam, please do hunt down a copy of this book—it’s a lovely dream, in more ways than one.

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3 Comments

Filed under Alex Reads, Fun with Isms

3 responses to “The Power of Whimsy and Magic in Queer Stories

  1. Pingback: The Power of Whimsy and Magic in Queer Stories — The Afictionado | FESTIVAL for FAMILY

  2. Pingback: May ’20 Roundup (and the “Oh My God I Have So Much Writing to Do” Hiatus) | The Afictionado

  3. This book sounds lovely. I am also listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s “12 Songs from Home” with birds singing out of my window after the rain and this just feels right.

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