Here are all my secrets.
A few months ago I sold a long essay about my goals in The Traitor Baru Cormorant — artistic goals, yeah, but also human goals. Hopes for what the book might achieve.
I canceled that essay before it ran. I felt like I had to let the book speak for itself.
Being an author carries a strange hollow weight. You must, at times, pretend to be no one. Readers couldn’t discuss a book if they saw that book as a human being. So there’s a barrier we have to maintain between author, text, and audience, a barrier of impersonality and remove.
If you don’t want to know anything about what I was thinking when I wrote this book, turn back now.
If you do, I’ve drawn out a few of the core points below.
The Book Has To Entertain
The book must succeed as a piece of craft. It has to be a compelling story. If it isn’t, no one will read it. Everything becomes meaningless.
If you just want to read a great story, you can stop right here! Nothing below will matter to you. This novel’s written to work as a fast-paced, emotionally taut thriller. It’s up to you to decide if it succeeds!
If no one reads your book, it can’t change anyone but you. This is true not just of books, but of everything! If you want to change politics, you have to be an effective politician. If you want to change the world, you need power. If you want to speak, you need to convince people to listen.
How many of your beliefs are you willing to sacrifice in order to be effective?
The Book’s About The Line Between Subversion and Complicity
Junot Diaz wrote that “white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.”
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a novel about the cutting line between subversion and complicity.
In this story, mighty powers present young Baru Cormorant with a story about who she is and who she must become. Baru enters this story and attempts to change it from within. In the process, she risks being changed in turn.
Can Baru enact the stories she’s given without being devoured by them? Can she subvert these stories in order to defeat them?
I believe in the death of the author. This is my reading of the book. It’s not necessarily more powerful or meaningful than yours.
Here are the three stories Baru faces —
The Book Speaks To The World
— but first, let’s talk about the power of stories. The human mind is a cognitive miser. It hates to think, because thinking is really expensive. So we use stories to organize facts. Stories provide us with cognitive schema, altering our models of how the universe behaves.
For many years I studied racial bias in police shootings. I operated millisecond-level reaction trackers, studied eyetracking data, and joined a lab that hunted the very neural correlates of implicit racial bias: not the blunt, conscious prejudice we hold in contempt, but the automatic, low-level associations that infect us all.
We could see the cultural story that links black Americans to violence. We could see it in the reaction time data, in the motion of the eye, in the lightning of the brain. We could see it altering when and where people pulled the trigger.
We could see that story killing people.
We are all infected. Down in the automatic subsystems of the brain, the evolutionary strata that support and shape our consciousness. There are ways of learning down there which we cannot access or override, and they learn from mere exposure, they feed on simple emotion, and they say: I have seen these two things together, so they are connected. I have seen these people connected to this fear, and so they are one. These systems choose how close we sit to members of other races. They alter our facial microexpressions with split-second frames of hostility and disgust. They tip the balance when we choose between two candidates for a job. All of us are infected.
Where do these stories come from? How do we learn them? How do they gain power over us, even when we reject them with our waking minds?
This is why I chose to write about the problem of powerful stories. They work. Our world is full of them, and they continue to propagate forward.
We must confront them.
Another Reason I Chose To Write About These Stories
For the past several years the Internet has been having a conversation about who’s allowed to be the protagonist of our stories. In some stories, the argument goes, it is ‘unrealistic’ for certain types of people to star — because they’d face too much oppression to act as an interesting character. Women in a generic medieval setting, for example, might be too confined to the roles of ‘housewife’ and ‘prostitute’. Non-white people might be seen as alien, or simply absent, erased from the demographics. Queer people never appear (since many writers don’t do enough research on the relatively recent construction of modern gender) or face brutal punishment.
These arguments don’t work out factually. They’re historically inaccurate, and moreover, historical accuracy isn’t always what we aim for.
But I wanted to say, okay, let’s say you have a world which is an absolute hellhole for those who aren’t part of the narrow power majority. You can still write a protagonist from the bottom of the power structure, stack the deck against her, and make her compelling! You have the power! You’re closing your eyes to great stories you could tell.
In this sense The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a mission of infiltration. Baru must enter the archetypical dark fantasy narrative, and seize control from within.
Three Stories Baru Confronts
These are the villains of the story, and the stories of the villains:
Gender is biology. (In a feudal power game, women serve as prizes, not leaders.)
Race is destiny. (When the colonizers arrive, the poor simple colonized are overwhelmed.)
Queer relationships are doomed. (In a homophobic world, queer people suffer and die.)
These stories have power in our world, Earth. This makes them dangerous to tackle in a novel, because a misstep can inflict real harm. And it puts a burden on the author to explain: why did these narratives arise in a fantastic otherworld, too? They aren’t universal or eternal on Earth.
If I tackle even one of these stories, I need to tackle all of them, because they’re connected. (You’ll often hear this called intersectionality, and it’s vitally important.)
These stories are actualized in the book by the Masquerade, a hegemonic power that seeks to control and specialize its citizens according to an ideological plan called ‘Incrasticism’. The Masquerade craves an ordered and peaceful world. They’re very clever about getting it. Their worst trick is the use of psychological conditioning, both individually and on the societal level, to convince their subjects to obey.
In order to make Baru a useful citizen, the Masquerade hopes to create a state of learned helplessness: no matter what you do, it ends up serving our purposes. Accept your place.
To teach this learned helplessness, the Masquerade forces its citizens to act and re-enact stories until they learn their lesson.
And so Baru must confront these stories. On Taranoke she faces down the arriving colonizers with their racial doctrines. In Aurdwynn she has to play the feudal power game. At the Elided Keep she confronts the dragon of the tragic queer story, the dominant narrative about her happiness and future. Each of these narratives is a story in which a woman like Baru traditionally has no power or agency, and yet each time, she chooses not to reject the story but to find a passage through.
(An aside: the first two chapters of the book are set up to quickly hit each of these notes, so that readers who don’t want to engage with them can bail out. The colonizers arrive, they quickly make an issue of policing sexuality, and they disappear father Salm.)
Junot Diaz writes, in an interview that’s haunted me for years:
in the work of, say, Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions. Or said differently: how indissolubly our identities are bound to the regimes that imprison us. These sisters not only describe the grim labyrinth of power that we are in as neocolonial subjects, but they also point out that we play both Theseus and the Minotaur in this nightmare drama.
And that’s all you need, really: the central conflict of the book is the Masquerade’s attempt to condition Baru into compliance, while Tain Hu pulls the other way (and oh there is a lot to say about Tain Hu, but I’ll try to control myself).
This conditioning operates on the reader too.What happens at the end of the book? Is Baru triumphant, or defeated? Has she subverted the whole Masquerade machine by taking over their stories, or in enacting them, has she become compliant?
That’s up to you to decide.
But remember the Masquerade’s trick with the prisoners. Allow them to escape, and then crush their hope just when they’ve embraced freedom. Repeat. Repeat. Until the prisoner rejects escape even when it’s offered. This is the Masquerade’s design on Baru, and it is also what the Masquerade hopes to do to the reader: see this story? See it happen again and again? It’s inside you now. It’s part of you. We have literally carved it into your brain. There is no hope to ever be free of it.
This is what cultural narratives, like the three I’ve outlined above, do to us. On some level we begin to believe them even if we consciously reject them. They still have power. So:
Is there still hope? Can Baru win?
These are hard questions, maybe the hardest. But they are also the questions that inhabit our lives. Every day we have to choose what we’re willing to sacrifice to survive. Do we acquiesce to life in a state that assassinates its own citizens, but provides us with peace and security? Do we drive our car, contributing to ecological devastation? Do we buy in (yet again) to a global system of exploitation and injustice, if it gets us cheap goods and a job?
We do these things because we must. The alternative is to become ineffective.
But perhaps we don’t always see how these choices change us.
So: those were my secrets. I didn’t write the book only to say these things, but I did write with them in mind. It’s up to you to say if it succeeds.
INDEXES (you might get bored reading these)
Gender is Biology
In colonialism, bodies are targeted and regulated by the political apparatus. This one was tricky. I had no desire whatsoever to write about rape or sexual violence, but I couldn’t erase this historical force, for fear of whitewashing colonial powers.
The Masquerade teaches Baru that gender, the set of social roles assigned to sexes, is determined by biology. Their gender system isn’t the same as ours, but it produces many of the same effects: women are punished for sexual desire, punished for sexual unavailability, punished for having children out of wedlock, and punished for never having children at all.
Baru defies this system in several ways. She doesn’t care much about children — a choice that’s her own (although one could argue it’s also a defensive reaction). She refuses to look at herself or other women using Masquerade standards of beauty. She’s supremely confident in herself as a physical entity.
Yet Baru’s time in Aurdwynn forces her to play personal politics within the Masquerade bureaucracy and the Aurdwynni feudal system. First, she has to fake a conventional heterosexual relationship to escape surveillance; then she faces down a group of dukes who see marriage as an integral part of solidifying allegiance. If Baru doesn’t have kids, she puts her own legacy in jeopardy.
Baru engages with this expectation by using it to manipulate her Ducal allies. Is this a subversion of their principles, or a betrayal of her own?
Race is Destiny
The Masquerade’s Incrastic ideology describes race as a biological truth. Their eugenics program seeks to specialize the races and create useful hybrids. They will happily retrofit their biological definitions to fit social changes — the ‘Falcresti’ race used to be a bunch of different cultures, but now Falcrest’s Metademe claims a shared ancestry. And they will tell other races, like the Taranoki, that they’re simple, innocent, childlike.
Baru rejects this system, immediately dismissing the concept of biological race and nursing a simmering hatred of the eugenic ideology. She knows that her home wasn’t a pre-lapsarian paradise: the Taranoki were people with a culture, a scientific project, and a rich trade network.
In Aurdwynn she successfully unites different ethnic groups under a single political cause. But her own defiance might serve Masquerade goals. She’s the ‘model Taranoki’, a successful technocrat who plays by the rules — but of course she’s got the patronage of a powerful figure and a cloistered education. Easy to hold her up as an example of what you, too could become.
And in the course of her work in Aurdwynn, Baru’s willing to sacrifice those who stand up for their own identity. She works closely with Xate Yawa, the national inquisitor. She happily takes advantage of the ilykari network, a culture of secrecy built to resist Masquerade dominance.
Baru’s goal is total destruction of the Incrastic ideology from within. But along the way, she risks contributing to the ideology’s success.
Queer Relationships are Doomed
The idea of the queer relationship as tragic or doomed goes back a long way. And it’s most dangerous when internalized. This was probably the part of the book that kept me up the most nights and led to the most crises of faith.
The Masquerade’s homophobia stems from their concern with competitive fertility, social hygiene, and racial purity. They see ‘incorrect’ family structures as a threat to the long-term stability of civilizations. Their greatest weapon is fear: the ability to convince people like Baru that any non-heteronormative relationship will only lead to misery.
The simplest defiance, then, is to be happy — to do what so many have done so well, in reality and in art, and imagine a space where happiness is possible and unchallenged. But Baru gets hit early and hard by the disappearance of her father Salm (an act that she never explicitly thinks of as an intentional maneuver by her patron, Farrier: but the possibility exists). And as she sets out on a mission to prevent any future deaths of fathers, she’s maneuvered into re-enacting that cycle of tragedy. At Haraerod she massacres a Ducal family that closely resembles her own.
Tain Hu, meanwhile, carries on a happy life in Aurdwynn with many lovers and friends, in spite of Masquerade surveillance and the distemper of her neighbors. (Named lovers and/or friends in the story include Ulyu Xe and Ake Sentiamut, although Baru tries not to notice these relationships for fear of losing her own discipline.) Again and again Tain Hu tries to crack Baru’s self-control and help her realize that happiness is possible now, here. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been together for the length of the rebellion except that Baru thinks it’s tactically inadvisable: and in disciplining herself for tactical effect, Baru closes herself to the possibility of escaping the Masquerade narrative.
When Baru’s treason becomes clear, Tain Hu responds by taking up the weapons Baru taught her — manipulating the final act of the book so that she’s selected as a hostage for Baru, brought to Baru, and left in Baru’s power. We might even believe that Tain Hu turned herself over to Apparitor to be captured. Only at Baru’s side can she discharge her vows to serve both Aurdwynn and Baru to her death, by extracting a promise from Baru to save Aurdwynn and then tearing away the hostage that would constrain her.
And only here can she force Baru to acknowledge that her own personal relationships are vital and real. Not tactical performance.
At the end of the book, Baru is forced to re-enact her own father’s disappearance, the very act that signaled the beginning of Masquerade control, upon Tain Hu. Yet she alters this performance into a gambit to permanently break Masquerade control. She has the option to live with Tain Hu, but under Masquerade terms. But Tain Hu will not live on anyone else’s terms. She defies complicity.
While not explicitly an act of homophobia in the story’s world (since Tain Hu is a political prisoner and a rebel, and she’d be Baru’s hostage even if she were man) this is a subtextual return to the book’s question: can you subvert a story from the inside?
Neither woman is broken by the finale. They part with a strange kind of fondness and trust, each charged with hope. I may betray a little authorial bias with this observation. But my reading’s no more important than yours.