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Guest Essay: The Transformative works of Xan West by Nicole Field

Nicole Field shares how her personal canon was shaped by the power and wondrous possibility of West's writing

As part of the ongoing discussion of SFF canon, I’ve invited the wonderful Nicole Field to discuss how the works of Corey Alexander—who wrote under the name Xan West—transformed their life not only as a reader, but as a writer as well.

Tragically, Corey passed away in mid-August, 2020, shortly after Nicole wrote this piece. RB Lemberg, one of Corey’s closest friends, is currently raising funds to cover funeral expenses. Please consider donating if you’re able. My heart is with Corey’s family, friends, and fans, who’ve lost a wonderful writer and an even better person.

I’m proud to be able to share Nicole’s beautiful examination of what made Corey’s work so special to so many people.

Love and kindness,

- Aidan Moher

Note from Nicole: This piece was first completed on 7th August 2020, in answer to a call regarding personal canon in genre fiction.

Since then, the sad news regarding Corey Alexander, who wrote as Xan West—and is the subject of this essay—has been released. And so, this writing has taken on a different tone than was originally anticipated.

Corey was a wonderful, nonbinary, autistic, disability, fat, queer, trans advocate with a love of the written word and sharing that love with as many people as possible. As well as all of that, they were a friend.

They will be, and already are, soundly missed.

(Corey Alexander, who wrote under the name Xan West.)

I’ve spent my life looking up to other writers. For almost as long as I can remember, that is what I’ve wanted to be. I can remember carting around reams of paper until my dad held out a floppy disk to me, patiently telling me how many pads of paper would fit within it. I remember teaching myself touch typing through attempting to keep up with conversations I could hear my brother and sister having.

I remember hearing somewhere that Isabelle Carmody published a book that she wrote when she was sixteen. It was a huge inspiration for me. I was Australian, and she was Australian. I was a teenager and she had been a teenager.

For a lot of years, mainstream publishing was really all there was to talk about. Authors picked up by the big five publishers were the only ones who could stand before us writers, to inspire us and show us how the path to publishing worked.

Straight out of high school, I went into my first writing course, and goodness that was a wake up call in how much trimming even individual sentences were likely to need before short stories of mine might be captivating enough for an audience.

I got published in a few small places—online zines and mags—around the time that small press publishing was starting up. Ebooks were a thing that I couldn’t even imagine people reading only 15 years ago. Those mainstream publishers had never done ebooks before, and I knew that. I’d been paying attention after all.

Yet, despite all that attention I’d paid to mainstream publishing, in the end it was in the realms of small press and indie publishing that I found someone who genuinely—and closely—influenced the work I was doing at the time, and will likely be an influence on my writing for some time to come.

This was an individual that I found several years ago on Twitter. Their bio mentioned that they wrote both polyamorous and kinky novels and that was definitely my jam. They were working on a novel, one that they posted snippets of every now and then. Enough to get a taste for it. Enough for me to know this was something I wanted to read.

And so, I said that. I asked them if they needed or wanted beta readers on the project—as that was a place I had experience in—and after a short time, they replied with an affirmative.

This book taught me how to make space for fat and disabled bodies. I learned the way that one can indulge in descriptions of food and place and make a reader feel as though they are right there. But more than that, I learned how to slow down for those moments between people. Neurotypical people. Autistic people. Disabled people. People with trauma histories, with chronic pain. All of these people deserved their place on the pages of books – and on the front covers.

And then that author made me the same offer in return. When I was on my next project, I came to them for beta reading and advice. They picked out the moments where I needed to slow down that pacing, to deliberate over that moment, to make it more intense, more personal, more meaningful.

We conversed at length about individual scenes, about themes for those projects overall, about character arcs. There were conversations about representation that neither of us saw overly much in fiction. About how difficult it was to feel like we were blazing a path that maybe the publishing world didn’t want to know about, at least not yet. Or that how we didn’t have the narrative representation to show us likely trajectories that our own lives could take; narrative representation that so many other types of people took for granted.

I only realised at this point in the project that—back in my rush to cut those overlong sentences to a readable length during that first writing course—my writing had become very minimalist. I knew to show rather than tell, but I didn’t embellish anymore. There wasn’t any heart in my writing to draw the reader and keep them turning those pages.

And there was so much of my heart that I wanted to share in my writing. A passion for words and stories that I’d always felt a need to share with other people.

My writing has become stronger for those mentoring sessions with this author. My appreciation for language and what it can do has grown from my continued reading of the books they publish. My passion for representation has only become more fierce with each of the cover artists they commission.

In short, my writing and reading lives have both become more vivid because of the works of Xan West.

Nicole writes across the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. They live in Melbourne with one of their partners, two cats, a whole lot of books and a bottomless cup of tea.

They can be found on Wordpress and Twitter.