One of the most exciting and encouraging superhero stories to hit the shelves lately comes from writer April Daniels. Her novel, Dreadnought, follows the adventures of a young, transgender superhero. I had the chance to chat with April about what we can expect from her book, as well as the significance of her protagonist’s journey.
How did you get into “geek culture?”
When I was really young, my entry into geek culture was that it was always the thing. I don’t know how it happened because I was being raised by my mother, who was emphatically not a geek. But for some reason, Star Trek and Star Wars were huge parts of my childhood. All sorts of general nerdiness was just all around, from day one it seemed like.
Your protagonist is a transgender superhero. What to you is the significance of increasing representation in entertainment media for a YA audience?
It’s the book that I wish I’d had when I was 15. That was the idea behind it – I wanted it to be something that, if I’d had it when I was younger, maybe it would have helped me figure some things out a little earlier, which might have been beneficial for me. There are kids who are trans and maybe they haven’t realized or acknowledged it, or maybe they do know but there’s not a lot out there for them, and I was trying to address those various shortcomings.
How does your own experience inform the book?
I’m also trans. And actually, a lot of stuff I’ve dealt with being trans is not in the book, just because dysphoria is very uncomfortable to write about, and it can be uncomfortable to read about. So the hero, Dreadnought, gets an instant, magic transition that no one gets in real life. And the reason I did that is because the process of transition itself can be very disconcerting to read about. If you read all the stuff at once, about all the hurdles at once, it can be a lot to take in.
And so the way you do it in real life is you just break it down and do it one step at a time, and also realize that it’s a years-long process and that after a while, it’s very anticlimactic. And so all of that makes it not the stuff I wanted to put into a YA adventure book. And also, cisgender people can be a little obsessed with the transition of it all, and I wanted to step past that. I wanted to include the parts of the early trans experience that I actually think are a lot more interesting and beautiful, and a lot less spoken of, which are the emotional and social adjustments. So it was my experiences in transition that helped me decide what to focus on and what to put in the background or even skip over entirely just for the sake of what I wanted to do with the book. It was never meant to be a 100 percent realistic depiction of transition.
Do you feel like we’re heading in the right direction generally when it comes to representation?
The problem I have with this is that there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic and there are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic. It sometimes feels like two steps forward, one step back. The thing that gives me real hope, though, is that the Own Voices movement has sort of risen up to confront the issue of superficial pushes for diversity, but they’re not being written by people from the communities that those stories would actually speak to. So I think there’s more of a push now to say, actually you need to hire diverse creators.
Something you said in one of your blogs was really interesting. Increasing representation should be the baseline – there shouldn’t still be a debate about whether we should do it. Instead, the question should be, what do we want to do artistically, now that we’re not just telling stories that mainly focus on straight, white men? Could you tell me a little more about your thoughts?
I have seen several times, not always but chronically, situations where creators will just have representation that’s like, “Oh hey, there’s a black person in the cast,” or, “Oh hey, we have lesbians.” And then they just leave it there, like that’s supposed to be exciting all on its own. And yes, I do get excited when I hear of trans characters. But then I’m often kind of disappointed because the next thing I learn is that the trans character is only featured in a limp, boring story that doesn’t go anywhere.
I’ve become really leery of diversity as a selling point – and I recognize the irony of saying that while I’m pushing my transgender superhero book. But diversity as a selling point isn’t really enough. It’s what you can do with the story in a diverse setting that’s interesting. It feels really patronizing to be asked to be excited about something that’s actually terrible just because it made a lot of noise about diversity. And my objections to this kind of thing informed a lot of what I put into this book. I tried hard to make Dreadnought’s being trans just one facet of her story and her characterization. The reality is, if you create a diverse cast, then you can have fun telling these stories in ways that are humanizing and aren’t patronizing.
What are some of your favorite fandoms?
I’m really excited for Overwatch, that’s kind of my new one.