When I walked in, the four of them were seated at a folding card table. Behind a cardboard screen, the Dungeon Master sat shuffling his stack of wrinkled maps and notes. I pulled up a chair, though the table was a little small.
The basement was unfinished. Under the stale smell of cigarettes, I caught the sweet and damp scents of fresh laundry and concrete. The only light poured in through a slim hopper window, and it sparkled with dust motes, though where we sat the room was hazy and dark.
This would be my first game.
These boys were part of my larger friend group, and they played D&D on the regular. One of them was a close friend, so I’d asked him if I could join their long-standing game. The others had been reluctant, but now somehow I was here.
I was so excited to play, I’d had trouble choosing a character—because I wanted to be all of them. In the end I was half-elf and half human, a low-level mage and a fighter. I wanted to be all the characters, so in a way I was none.
* * *
After Girl Minus X came out—I was asked, for the first time, why I write about teen girls. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. When something is marked out that way, I have to pause and think.
While the question was posed in a way that was genuine and curious and respectful, I couldn’t help but think about the larger cultural context in which, so often, books that feature teen girls are dismissed as lower or lesser than or unimportant or shallow.
But why not teen girls?
It’s a time when a person crosses a line, contends with physical transformation, one that often results in greater visibility, and finds themselves navigating public notions of their identity. Handed a narrowing set of signifiers, they’re left to deal with all-too-often predatory forces that are a lot bigger than them and incompletely understood. I don’t know: I guess this sounds like the stuff of fiction to me?
* * *
Our party was set down next to a large gaping crevice at the foot of a mountain. Already, I could see the other players shifting. Expressions deepened; tension lines formed. We all leaned a little closer.
I could tell that the DM would one day have a rumbling, hypnotic voice—though his voice was still settling in. I fixed my gaze on the table’s veneer, where I saw a high-walled cavern rise before our small party. My mind’s eye supplied the texture, the lighting, the rough-hewn cuts that would be left when a mountain is forcibly hollowed out.
I wasn’t sitting in some kid’s basement. I wasn’t playing D&D.
I was a mage and a fighter. I knew I’d have to earn my place in the party, but I had spells and concealed throwing knives and I wanted to prove myself.
* * *
Recently, I was asked again why I write teen girls. After I closed the Zoom window, I thought about how there are very few ways to feel free at that age, in the world.
I remember how, when my family moved from Rexdale to the suburbs, I felt stranded. The avenues of invention, the ones that gave me access the world of the imagination, seemed so few and far between.
I did a low-key kind of cos-play—though it’s probably better described as a poor attempt at camouflage.
I was a nerdy kid and it was the 80s and so, while I knew little (and often cared less) about the music I heard—music videos were new, and the outrageous clothes in them were EVERYTHING. I got the sides shaved off and died my hair bright orange. One day, I’d arrive at school in rags, like an extra from an apocalyptic music video, and on the next, I’d paint a wide band of pink across my eyes. On Sundays, I could be found at the local mall, dressed like a pole dancer in a metal video, in tiger-striped spandex and a torn shirt. But all of these were just signs of a restless imagination, small-scale inventions, a way of playing with what signifiers were freely available—though even costumes, of course, come with a code and a cost.
* * *
Just inside the entrance to the cave, a troll blocked the passage. I was surprised to feel adrenaline, to hear my thoughts race. I cast my mind over the few spells I’d started this campaign with.
Only the troll didn’t attack.
Instead, it turned and, in a rumbling voice, addressed itself to me.
The boys were now snickering. As they listened to the DM’s words, they looked at me, their gazes taking on a strange, new intensity.
“You need to roll,” the DM now said. “Pick up the dice and roll.”
I knew—before the die landed, before he read out the number on its face, before the long and objectifying and humiliating scene played out—I knew.
There is a particular sinking feeling when you realize, a beat too late, that you’ve been maneuvered into position, and there’s nothing you can do.
The die landed. The number was read.
The number was read as if what came next hadn’t been determined before I walked into the basement, as if it hadn’t been planned by the DM, written out, as if there was any other outcome in his notes, as if—had I rolled lower, higher, faster, slower, with my other hand—my character could have survived what he had planned and carried on with the campaign.
I walked out of that dark basement, and felt sunshine, hot on my face.
I felt all of it, acutely, the humiliation, the connection between what they had played off as a “joke” between friends—though it had effectively expelled me from their space—and the moments that were akin to it, sometimes at school and once as I stood in a line up outside of a concert and another time when walking across the food court at the mall and several times on a public bus, and once, while my back was turned, as I stood stalled in a crowded aisle at a football stadium. When such moments come, they don’t announce their arrival in advance, but sneak up on you. You learn early that such things can come at you from anywhere, at any moment, from anyone. From the stranger passing by you in the street; the acquaintance you recognize only as you turn your head; the old family friend.
Small and exhausting hostilities, like this, are a quiet way to propagate a larger kind of hatred, and have the effect of narrowing another’s possibilities, all while reinforcing old lines. This is a monster that cannot be defeated with a twenty-sided die.
I walked out of that dark basement, as I was always going to, and felt the sun’s heat on my cheeks; the next week, when the game resumed, there were four chairs set more comfortably around the table.
* * *
To whom do we grant access to the world of the imagination?
What kinds of topics are seen as serious, important, worthy, as doing a kind of cultural work that matters? What forms and which writers are viewed as lesser? Who is the joke and who the troll? Whose worlds do we build and whose do we tear down?
Whose monsters matter?
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Anne Stone is the author of four novels, Delible (2007), Hush (1999) and jacks: a gothic gospel (1998), and her newest book, Girl Minus X. She is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. She spent her childhood in Toronto, lived in Montreal, and now makes her home in Vancouver, where she teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Capilano University.