She stepped up behind me and I felt her fingers working through my caught hair. It brought the memory of another long-ago touch: my mother combing out snags and knots.
“Why do you wear women’s clothes? There is no power in being a woman, and you are suffering for your choice,” I said. “You could wear men’s tunics and they’d leave you alone.”
The pin came free and she stepped away from me. I heard it clink onto the crowded table.
“When I was seven or so, my sister caught me wearing her skirt,” Lady Dela said softly. “But even before that, I knew I was different from the other boys in our tribe. Nothing boyish came naturally to me. I hated hunting, fishing, even the ball games. I had to work at it, all the time.”
I turned around. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body.
“Then one day I found the beaded skirt my sister had laboured over for months, tucked away in our family’s tent,” she continued. “When I put it on, I felt complete. I remember thinking that it was just the thing to wear to the mudhole while I pretended to make the special bread our mother baked for Midwinter Feast.” She smiled ruefully. “As you can imagine, beautiful beaded skirts and mud do not mix. My sister found me and dragged me back to our mother for a beating. Of course, my sister’s righteous indignation was lost in the excitement when my mother and the other women saw me dressed in a skirt.”
“What did they do?”
“Instead of a beating, my mother sat me down beside her and showed me how to mill the rice. She always suspected I was a twin soul. She was just waiting for me to come to it myself. A wise woman, my mother. But I did not take on the life of a Contraire until much later. Until I was sure. It is an honoured position in my tribe.” She gave a small, bitter laugh. “Not so honoured here.”
She moved in front of the mirror, surveying herself. “I do not wear men’s clothing because I am a woman in here,” she touched her head, “and here,” she touched her heart. “You are wrong when you say there is no power in being a woman. When I think of my mother and the women in my tribe, and even the hidden women in the harem, I know there are many types of power in this world.” She turned to face me. “I found power in accepting the truth of who I am. It may not be a truth that others can accept, but I cannot live any other way. How would it be to live a lie every minute of our life? I don’t think I could do it.”
By way of explanation, I can’t find any evidence anywhere of Alison Goodman claiming to be feminist. However her book Eon is strongly feminist, with an interesting heroine, and a nuanced and sympathetic extended discussion of gender. The plot is simple, but the characters are complex, and the ideas are fascinating and beautiful. It’s a young adults book which I bought it for my emerging teen daughter, and read and enjoyed myself.