A desire to reclaim the queer villain is the beating heart fueling the ambiguous loyalties and coolly calculating veneer of Prince Laurent - one half of the rivals-cum-possible-lovers in best-selling ‘will they, wont they’ erotic gay fantasy epic the Captive Prince trilogy from Melbourne author C.S. Pacat.
Discussing a mutual appreciation for Disney antagonists like Aladdin’s Jafar and The Lion King’s Scar with a close friend, Pacat, who identifies as bisexual, realised she’s always been into bad guys and now knows why. “It was the only place I’d been seeing myself,” Pacat says. “What does that mean when your only point of identification in narratives over and over again is either the victim that dies or the villain of the story?”
Pacat will appear at several Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) events this week including a panel called Borders of the Queer Body, hosted by Benjamin Law and also featuring Peter Polites and Ivan Coyote. It asks how queer representation in literature is changing and how authors construct and define queer characters in these rapidly evolving times.
“I grew up reading and re-reading Maurice and the same handful of novels, like The Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault or The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal and an even smaller handful of fantasy novels like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey,” Pacat says, noting that many, if not all, had a similar downwards trajectory.
“The quote unquote ‘gay storyline’ where coming out is traumatic and then you’re doomed to live your life on the fringes of society. You may or may not get a love interest but you’ll definitely die tragically at the end. That was the only way queerness existed or there was coded queerness where the characters never acknowledged as such but nudge nudge, wink wink, you knew they were.”
A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy novels, Pacat never understood why so many of the precious few authors who broached LGBTIQ+ stories imported real-world prejudices instead of recasting circumstances. Homosexuality is the norm in the Captive Prince world, where the warm-blooded Prince Damen lusts after his captor and mortal enemy Laurent, even as he hides his true identity as the slayer of Laurent’s brother in battle.
“Documenting the world as it actually is serves a valuable purpose in the expression of queer lives, whereas I think the perks of fantasy and science fiction is to imagine the world as it might be… to create heroes and myths,” Pacat says.
“Mythmaking was once the province of religion and classical literature and is really now the province of sci-fi and fantasy. Our modern myths are Superman and Harry Potter and so on.”
Pacat says being able to imagine a place without oppression is really exciting and valuable to her as a queer person. “But then, on the other hand, I feel like we’ve had so much mythmaking from those genres that has excluded entire groups of people. We’ve spent so long constructing what a hero looks like and it’s often just a straight white guy aged between 15 and 35.”
The online world of fan fiction and its saucy cousin slash fiction, as well as web-based comics, allows for a great deal more experimentation. As a teenager, Pacat sought out like minds in chat rooms and eventually began the Captive Prince trilogy as an online serial.
“Because the internet is often anonymous or pseudonymous and doesn’t come with the official stamp of publication, I feel like as a result of that it’s an artistic space where people feel that they can be a little more uninhibited and freer in terms of what they are creating,” Pacat says, noting that two of her favourite distractions are queer web-based comics the NSFW sci-fi Starfighter and university ice hockey-focused Check Please.
Pacat also gets a thrill from checking out all of the Captive Prince fan art depicting the Princes Laurent and Damen. “I’m so happy and amazed at the level of creativity amongst Captive Prince readers. It’s really wonderful to me that they want to inhabit the world with their own creativity.”
Having run two fantasy writing workshops at this year's SWF, Pacat hopes a new generation will be inspired to create their own brave new worlds populated by queer characters. “I can’t even really imagine what I might have felt like to grow up and feel that electricity of identification with someone that would live and triumph over their circumstances,” she says, adding, “The success of Captive Prince took me by complete surprise and one reason for that was the constant messaging from both my bookshelf and from publishers and agents before it took off, that this wasn’t the sort of book that would get published and that if it did, it wouldn’t have a market. Well, the vibrancy of the queer creative scene online and the success of the books explodes that myth and I hope that gives other queer writers the confidence to go for it.”