In the Blog
Non Binary World Building with M Téllez
Image credit: M Téllez
M is a member of the Philadelphia-based collective METROPOLARITY, a sci-fi and speculative fiction group that, in their words, uses writing to ride against empire. While I was living in Philadelphia I got into M’s writing through their zine about cyborgs navigating dystopia called All That’s Left. I loved this zine because it re-ignited the old sci-fi nerd in me while opening up new possibilities for queer, trans and non-binary worlds. Interviewing them was a great chance to reconnect and speak about science fiction, binaries, and writing your dreams.
Can you tell me a little about how and why you started writing?
When I was a kid, around 9 or 10, my mom gave me an old notebook of hers that was a dream journal. She had only used it once or twice, so she tore out the used pages and gave it to me. It had a mysterious feeling to it, with a size that was different than the standard composition notebooks I used for school, and it said DREAM JOURNAL on the cover. It felt magical, like I could write real dreams or made-up ones, and that was a very different than the cute lock-and-key style diaries that were often given to girl-assigned children in the very early 90s. “Dear Diary” did not appeal to me at all, but “Write Your Dreams” did.
Ever since then, I’ve kept a journal where I write my thoughts, dreams, TO DO lists, pieces/drafts/ideas for stories. Even though I don’t read them, I still have my journals from childhood. I think keeping a journal is a very powerful, very simple tool for anyone who wants to change themselves or the situations they are in. The blank page is all yours.
I got into your writing through All That’s Left, can you talk a little about that work?
I used to describe All That’s Left as non-linear post-binary series about cyborgs in the dystopian now. ATL is not about the exciting adventures of high-powered cyborgs who work for the military or police. It is about poor, mixed, gender non-conforming survivors who receive prosthetic bodies through a predatory “work opportunity” from a nearby private entity. They’re contracted to do dangerous environmental survey work of toxic land in exchange for some amenities like clean water, and they do this because they don’t have access to another means of survival. ATL is the story about their lives finding meaning and intimacy, dignity and community, with strange, unreliable bodies in a robbed and barren reality.
I initially self released the series around 2012 through 2015 over three separate zines and two audio cassette tapes. For years now, I’ve been slowly working on turning these initial stories into a book. It’s hard work and I’m rewriting everything, but it’ll be good when it’s done. For now, the original stories (in text and audio form) still exist at cyborgmemoirs.com.
Did you set out to create a cohesive world and narrative or did that develop with the story?
I think both. My favorite stories growing up were fantasy novels, cyberpunk anime, magical girl manga, and space opera tales that drew you totally into their unique worlds, which may seem close to ours but are really far apart at the same time. They also had at least five characters that all had unique personalities and abilities, and you could pick your favorite from and talk about with other fans. So with ATL I knew I wanted to write a series about a group of characters. My earliest writings for the series are character sheets and world notes, and brief descriptions and character interactions that later became the basis for longer stories. Over the years as I’ve continued to write, I’m able to see more of the world my characters inhabit. And with turning it into a more detailed book, I’ve had to do quite a lot of research on topics like how toxic chemical exposure affects human hormone production and sexual system development. The research gets tedious but it’s worth it in the long run, because I understand more about what my characters have been through. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up near a toxic piece of land, and you never go through puberty because of it? How does that affect your sense of self and the choices that you make? It’s very hard work, but I think that creating a cohesive world and long-running narrative is a very powerful way to communicate with people.
How does your own identity and experience inform your work? How does it inform what kind of worlds you are building?
This is from my bio: “I’m born and raised in the 215. I’m working class, mixed race (all oppressed animist Catholics) and raised in a blended family. I’m nonbinary, which for me means I experience both/all/more than the false masculine/feminine gender binary. (Upon insistence, I side with trans of the imperialist trans/cis binary.) I am a survivor of feminized violence. I’m cyborg, I am hybrid, I am serpent crossroads. I want to break the cycles of white assimilation into anti-Black empire. I write speculative fiction because I want a way out.”
We’re surrounded by stories about police and soldiers, elite operatives and very wealthy, elite people who have adventures – princesses, nobles, chosen heroes who become rulers or saviors. We don’t see exciting, empowering stories about poor people, disabled people, Black and Indigenous people, trans people – and when we do, they’re usually soldiers or cops or they work for an elite group, government, or powerful kingdom. And the might of that kingdom is rarely questioned as good, bad, or necessary.
Even in Sailor Moon, we hear that the enemies of the Moon Kingdom are evil and have done terrible, terroristic things to try and destroy Princess Serenity and wonderful her kingdom…but we never hear why or how they became bad. On the news in real life, we often hear reports of how groups are terrible or doing bad things, but we don’t hear how it got that way for them. Could it be that the group who is calling them bad is the same group who hurt them in the first place? It’s food for thought, you know?
So I want new stories that question these unquestioned values, such as kingdoms are always necessary and good or that certain people are bad because of who they are and not because someone hurt them. When I was in middle school, I had to learn about the European Age of Exploration, and we were told many great things came of it. But for the indigenous people of the Americas, it was an apocalypse! I’m tired of only hearing stories about explorers, pioneers, conquerors, saviors, and the like. I want more stories about healing, self-reflection, survival, forgiveness, redemption and rebirth.
Often when we hear the word binary it’s associated with the gender binary. But are there other binaries that you are exploring with your work?
ALL OF THEM.
Ok, well I think the numerical binary (0/1; on/off) coding and computer programming are at the foundation of perhaps all our modern computer tools and devices. Many of them were developed for use by and for the military, in fields of medicine, communication, and behavior prediction and control. Sorting and categorizing, identification and surveillance technologies have brought great economic wealth and power to governments and individuals who control, develop, and distribute them onto others. These technologies are powerful and efficient at what they do because they have been standardized and ubiquitous – meaning introduced to the whole of society as “normal” – but to work they often reduce and force very complex things into one of two options and discard what can’t or won’t fit. That’s where language comes in.
When I was a pre-teen surfing the dial-up internet, I came across an anonymous document called the Laws of Life. It’s also known as the Laws of Magick or Laws of Reason, but here are two of the laws that stuck with me ever since: (8) Law of Infinite Universes: change your perspective in one area and you change your universe. There are always three choices available; and (12) Law of Polarity: everything contains and implies its opposite.
So keeping those in mind, I think many of us are raised to use binary phrases in language. For example:
- this or that
- if X, then Y
- on one hand/on the other hand
- on one side/on the flip side
- with us/against us
Many, many people will try to make you act or choose something using this kind of language, and many times it will be to disempower you for their benefit. In arguments, someone may try to get you to admit that you “always” do one thing and “never” do another, but what if the reality is “sometimes” you do both or all, or you are both or all, depending? What does your opponent have to gain by forcing you to make one of two choices, when there’s so many more available?
I don’t believe in just two aspects of anything, and I question anytime someone uses binary language to describe a problem or solution or issue. There’s always more than two sides to any story, you know? The moon has cycles. The earth rotates. We are not flat or two-dimensional in body or spirit, and so binary language does not serve us well.
I saw a write up about a METROPOLARITY collection that says the writing “serves as a model and a record of how black, brown, queer, low-resource, working, ill and in-recovery people can project themselves into the future, conjuring resources and magic that aid the present.” I love that way of articulating the potential of speculative fiction writing. Do you have more to say about that statement and how METROPOLARITY as a collective sees its role as part of this process?
It’s not uncommon that people say sci-fi or speculative fiction can predict the future. METROPOLARITY considers that sci-fi can manifest the future. Write Your Dreams. Speak your needs and desires into existence. It’s possible.