Heather Osborne is joining us today to talk about her novel, Songbroken. Here’s the publisher’s description:
She sang a vow to learn to heal, but the person she needed to save was herself.
Nils is a healer’s apprentice faced with a difficult choice. Only men are allowed to be healers. But if Nils denies her heart and chooses that path, neither a healer’s status nor the balm of study will make up for losing a chance at marriage with the person she loves.
Instead, concealing her true self from everyone she knows, Nils risks a dangerous journey to the distant city, desperate to find a balance between life’s passion and heart’s life. But always, the question remains—can a healer’s songs truly work for a woman? And should Nils’s deception be discovered, she will be songbroken: shunned by her family, dismissed by her master, and denied any contract, vow, or relationship.
What’s Heather’s favorite bit?
Songbroken is set in a society with a rigid, strongly socially-enforced gender binary. (Sound familiar?) And one of the features (or bugs, as the main characters discover) is that clothing is determined by the wearer’s gender.
The difference from our world is that children don’t have any gender. They, along with their family, make that choice only when a child comes of age. At eighteen, Nils chooses to become a man, only to discover a bone-deep discomfort with the clothing that comes with that choice.
Everyone wears robes—dresses, basically—for formal occasions, and wears practical clothing like trousers and tunics as everyday working clothes. So style isn’t prescribed by gender. However, gender absolutely and irrevocably dictates a person’s clothing colours, decoration, and especially the “side” that they tie their belt or knot their boots.
It doesn’t sound hugely onerous, does it? But sometimes it’s the barriers, the denials, that make us most aware of how desperately different we feel. In our world, our clothing choices are shaped by demands just as arbitrary and ridiculous. Sure, we know this—but for most, it’s a superficial knowledge we only notice in passing. But for some of us, the expected ‘uniform’ of a specific gender just itches in a way that’s hard to describe.
I won’t say that Nils’s journey to discover the joys of non-gender conforming clothing was my way of working out my own butch identity and my pleasure in my own androgynous fashion sense…. But I won’t not say that, either!
For most of the book, Nils has to hide her true self, and that includes the clothing she wears. She keeps a gift from a dear friend next to her skin, underneath her outer wear. She’s constantly untying her belt and her shoelaces; she’d rather appear disheveled than wear her clothing ‘properly’.
So my favourite bit is those moments when Nils dresses openly as a woman. When she finds people who understand her. When she doesn’t simply scratch out a place where she can survive, but takes the time to celebrate who she is. In those moments, she shines.
This excerpt comes from one such moment. Nils has just admitted that she is ‘ono’: a person without a specific gender. After this scene, Nils will take on a name and pronouns that mark her as a woman.
Rythel dragged Nilos in front of her. “Nilos is ono,” she said.
A shout went up from the center table. Several of them broke into whistles, a bright bird’s harmony echoing a child’s coming of age, the liquid notes melding a boy’s rite with a girl’s.
Lethinil took Nilos’s hands in hers, a soft squeeze rather than a trader’s clasp. “There’s a blue tunic in the winter press,” she said.
“I have a kerchief,” someone said, waving its bright green flag.
Another added, “I’ll see if I can find a belt,” and started tugging at a neighbour’s knot. The group dissolved into laughter, everyone snatching at each other’s women’s tokens to offer to Nilos. Their wild motley suddenly made sense, if this was how they welcomed newcomers.
The sudden shift from Rythel’s place-threats to her friends’ joking acceptance made Nilos shake. “I can’t pay—”
“They want to host you,” Rythel assured him. “Nothing of silver, or place.”
Since Larik died, Nilos had kept his belt-knot hidden on his right hip. Watching a nine of people all fighting to give him their best women’s clothes stopped his throat. Tears prickled behind his eyes. If he accepted, then had he given in to Rythel’s offer to heal those ono in exchange for his lodging? If he took freedom with one hand, what was he giving up with the other?
If he wouldn’t take freedom when it was offered, why had he come?
The new green against his skin reminded him of pine boughs, and the mountains. Asaresta, high and blue behind him. With the woman’s cloak around his shoulders, he took his first unbound breath since coming of age. Rythel gave him courtesy, and her friends followed suit. “Those here,” he said, swallowing the quiver in his voice, “can call me Nyls.”
Heather Osborne has been writing science fiction and fantasy all her life. Her short stories have been anthologized in Seasons Between Us (2021), Shades Within Us (2018), and The Sum of Us (2017). Her creative non-fiction can be found in Swelling With Pride: Tales of Queer Conception and Adoption (2018). Since 2010, she has been an associate editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. Heather completed her doctorate of creative writing at the University of Calgary in 2018. Songbroken is her first novel.