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She Who Became the Sun: Violence and Queer Fiction

CW: mentions of violent acts (mutilation, amputation), conversations about violence.

So there were a lot of way to go with this, but I wanted to talk about a specific phenomenon I have been noticing (and kind of appreciating) in queer written fiction, which is this: the presentation of violence not as a tool of oppression (thought that is there, too), but a tool of liberation.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is a pretty dark historical-fantasy novel focused on retelling the story of the rise of the Ming Dynasty, but more specifically, a gender-bent retelling of the journey undergone by the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Chongba. But unlike most other gender-bent fiction I’ve read or seen, this isn’t simply just a feminist retelling, but a markedly queer one.

Unlike most gender-bent stories, which are also mostly heteronormative, this one isn't just about a woman in a man's world. Those stories always end up retaining the status quo despite their gender-bent nature. The woman is accepted by the world because she inhabits the position of a man as well as other men can. At the end of the day, the binary is still present, and the status quo isn't destroyed from its roots, but morphed just enough to be classified as "feminist".

In this sense, She Who Became the Sun presents a far more radical story, simply because it understands the necessity of violence. The central conflict focuses on a trio of characters who attempt to put themselves in the binary society enforces on them (male/female; man/woman), and find out that the binary does not work for them. The status quo needs to be destroyed. And the tool they choose for that is violence. Both violence against others and violence against the self.

For Zhu Chongba, whose biologically female body hindered her capacity to achieve greatness in the eyes of society, it was her amputated hand that rendered her unwanted by both living society and the Chinese afterlife, allowing him to pursue his destiny with no societal strings attached.

For General Ouyang, a eunuch and raging homosexual, it was the killing of his potential lover that freed him to purse his desire to destroy the Mongol Empire.

For Wang Baoxiang, it was playing up his feminine qualities in a way that invited violence upon him by his Mongol-centric society, that allowed him to justify his own path of revenge against the status quo.

In each case, it was violence that a character used to not only destroy the status quo they found themselves under, but to liberate themselves by intentionally placing them outside the bounds of what the status quo wants: the gender binary.

It was a difficult thing to grasp for me initially. But that's the beauty of fiction, too: terrible things can happen for good. And violence is a necessity if one wants to find themselves outside the status quo, where the possibilities of change are endless. And, in my opinion, queer fiction has been far quicker in seeing the benefits of it than mainstream heteronormative media has—not only as a weapon or tool of oppression, but as a channel through which to understand one’s self.

(If any of you end up reading this book, it has a happy ending, I promise).

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This was actually such an interesting read since in recent times, the idea of necessary violence is something I genuinely haven't come across. The status quo is pretty simple: every sort of violence is bad. It's refreshing to see something break away from that even if I don't fully understand it. Due to that lack of understanding, I'm pretty curious about whether it was genuinely necessary in this pursuit or was it complementary since the two do have an overlapping distinction. Nonetheless, I'm fully ready to read this book with an open mind


Nov 26, 2023

I think the idea of outright rejecting and destroying society’s binary via violence instead of merely challenging it while still conforming to the expectations of the opposite sex is quite powerful, and it’s definitely not something I’ve thought about before, yet alone seen in media. I also appreciate how this novel’s portrayal of violence isn’t glorifying or gratuitous, instead, it’s supposed to be an evil tool necessary to break free from the shackles of society and oppression. This theme of employing violence for liberation reminds me of the complexities of identity and societal expectations in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s self defense against her rapist is a more of a symbolic rejection of her subjugated status as a handmaid. Its…

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I do think that it is markedly different. Especially because the characters are queer. Even when it comes to "traditional" heroes, there is a sense that violence is something that is morally wrong in any and all cases. But that in itself is an idea that comes from privilege. For those who have only ever been on the sidelines, marginalized and oppressed, the only way to sometimes get what you want is through violence, or violent resistance, and it is something that exceeds beyond the bounds of the traditional dynamic of hero/villain. So to call their usage of violence as immoral is in itself wrong; its something the characters slowly come to terms with, especially when they come up against…

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