WORD: Books on the Power of Language
Recently, before life went absolutely bonkers, I had the seemingly divine luck to read five books in sequence, and all five built upon each other and shaped the way I received what followed. I began with Dr. Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele‘s Queer: A Graphic History (Icon Books, 2016), followed that up with Sheri Tepper’s iconic The Gate to Women’s Country (Voyager, 1987), after which I dug into Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (DAW, 2010), with Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra (Harper Voyager, 2018, translated by Julia Hersey) hard on its heels, and Seanan McGuire’s In an Absent Dream (Tor, 2019) rounding out the sequence. Each book, in its own way, tackles this idea of language as both vehicle for and manifestation of power—and as a means to worldbuilding, both in a fictional context and in the off-the-page world, too.
At this point it’s probably trite to point out that words carry with them their own power, and that examining this power in a science fictional or fantastical work provides a rich platform for the formation of exotic and appealing systems of magic and science. Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind takes this proposition literally, with a certain subset of language—names—holding the utmost power in Kvothe’s world. Ursula K. Le Guin also believed in names as a conduit to power:
And of course we’re here for any and all things Le Guin.
Why not start with the only book in the sequence which isn’t science fiction or fantasy? In many ways, Queer: A Graphic History has no justification for being on this list. And yet, when I considered my experience navigating the books that came immediately after it, I couldn’t not talk about it. Without this book at the head of the list, I would not have understood my emotional response to Gate to Women’s Country, or begun this process of thinking about language as something other than print on a page.
For those who haven’t read this heavily illustrated introduction to queer theory, it is well worth a peek. For me, an agender, asexual, and aromantic person who has a lot of catch-up reading still to do on where the roots of my own vocabulary of identity came from and how they have evolved over time, this book reached me where I needed to be reached. It doesn’t cater exclusively to newcomers to the field—I have the feeling that even those with a deeper background in queer theory will find the format and structure deliver new and fresh insights—but it does break down the history and main questions or conversations within queer theory into an easily digestible format. Generally speaking, Barker and Scheele tackle one idea on each page or double spread, with a brief text explanation followed by an illustration (you can see an example to the right). Rarely does the illustration do the explaining for you; most often, it highlights some aspect of or directly responds to the text above it. In that sense, this is very much an illustrated book and not a graphic novel or work, but marketing needs what marketing needs, so it’s not worth quibbling over.
So, what’s the relationship between Queer: A Graphic History and science fiction and fantasy?
There’s something—something more eloquent readers and thinkers will have a much more nuanced take on, I’m sure, so read them first—about the book’s discussion of “queering” as an active verb. This is something that comes up frequently in our podcast, and Tony and I often end up assuming that we as well as our listeners know what it means immediately, but it’s still pretty nebulous, isn’t it? Queering, according to Barker and Scheele, is one and the same with what they call “queer reading,” or “rendering a text queerer by reading it in a certain way.” I had a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to this, as I did frequently throughout the book, in that my newcomer’s status means that I often ascribe meanings to terms relating to LGBTQIA+ matters that may not line up with the way these terms have been used historically, or in scholarly literature on the subject. I often end up feeling very muddled as I attempt to iron out whether these knee-jerk reactions and the disjointure I experience from my own sense of self are resolvable or not. As Barker and Scheele cleave pretty close to the scholarly side of things, but they rarely (if ever) attempt to tell readers what meaning they should be ascribing to specific terms—and that slight distinction, between sharing the scholarly history of a term and reinforcing that definition as the only interpretation, was an important one for me. I came to trust that the book’s creators were not going to ask me to dismiss all of my hard-won understandings of myself and the modern queer community, in part because of the book’s general voice, and in part because they always acknowledge—if not on the same page, then before the book’s close—variant perspectives, interpretations, and approaches. They acknowledge that the queer community today is not the same as the queer community which first began the codification and theory processes, that definitions and expressions change, and that the early days of queer theory didn’t leave much room for certain identities, including mine.
Language in the queer community, at its worst, is used to enact toxic power struggles, and to police definitions that exclude certain people from feeling like they belong, or that they understand their own community. Language in the queer community, at its best, allows new insights into the ways other people and texts enact their queerness, and allows us to better understand ourselves. Queer: A Graphic History is not without its hiccups, but it falls without a doubt at the “best” end of that spectrum.
If you’ve been following our podcast for the past year or so, you’ll already be well aware that I’ve been slowly making my way through the works of Sheri Tepper after stumbling across Grass (Spectra, 1989) in a used bookstore. To date, I have now also read The Fresco (Harper Voyager, 2000), After Long Silence (Bantam Spectra, 1987), Shadow’s End (Spectra, 1994), and now, Gate to Women’s Country (Voyager, 1987). I have several more of Tepper’s works at home that I haven’t gotten to yet—used bookstores in seven states have been kind to me—and I look forward to many more years of growing acquaintance, but my reading has been somewhat disorganized and roundabout as I read whatever Tepper is closest to hand. Gate to Women’s Country jumped up my list of priorities as we began putting together a podcast episode on single-gender utopias (now Episode 77) in science fiction and fantasy, which is why I made the trip back to 1987 instead of finishing up the sequels to Grass (which still remains my favorite, for reasons). This is all an overly complicated way of saying: I’ve read some Tepper, I have a lot more Tepper to read, but this Tepper is an important one to highlight here—especially in light of its position in my reading sequence, sandwiched between Queer: A Graphic History and Who Fears Death.
One of the things that jumps out whenever I pick up a work by Tepper—or Tiptree, or some of Le Guin and Atwood’s early stuff—is the datedness of the queer material. And sometimes, an obliviousness to the queer material. In Gate to Women’s Country, a modern reader will immediately recognize some of the book’s major undercurrents as queer, while the characters themselves remain unaware. Oh, yes, they’re certainly read in on the fact that they’re living in a (mostly) gender-segregated society, with warlike, aggressive men on one side of the city’s walls and peaceable men and women on the other side. In that sense, the book is clearly interrogating gender: What makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman? Are these inherent qualities? And are they qualities that we can shift, through deliberate conditioning or genetic manipulation? In this way, the book is deliberately queering gender in that it’s asking readers to question its fundamentals.
On the other hand, the book leans on the male-female gender binary, all the characters identify as the genders they were assigned at birth, and all the characters experience sexual, romantic, and aesthetic attractions to characters of the “other” (BIG air quotes there) gender. I would have felt bothered by this had I not read Queer: A Graphic History just prior, and been reminded that our broadening and more inclusive understanding of gender, orientation, and attraction can only be broad because we first had theory pioneers who began with the narrow and broke it up, piece by piece. In the 1980s, when Tepper published this book, there was no possibility of a nuanced, modern reaction against the patriarchy—yet. In the way of reactions and revolutions throughout history, Tepper and her fellow feminist science fiction writers faced the difficult task of figuring out how to react at all, within the framework of existing language. The Stonewall Riots had taken place two decades earlier, but the first American case of HIV emerged much later, in 1981—just in time for the great conservative Christian wave, which began gathering momentum in the 1970s as the era of tent revivals and evangelical “crusades” drew to a close, reached its peak. American culture and society was seen as a battleground for opposing ideologies, much as it is again today, forty years later, and the relationship between the patriarchy and conservative religious politics made any response that questioned the nature of gender a radical one.
Reading Gate to Women’s Country is like spinning the dial on a time machine and watching your sixteen-year-old self grapple with the complicated questions of identity. That is to say, it’s bound to be a little awkward, and you had to be that sixteen-year-old before you could become the whatever-year-old you are today. (If you’re under sixteen and reading this review, that’s cool, and I apologize for all the shit that’s about to hit your life’s proverbial fan. It gets better.) These days, thought experiments like Women’s Country are no longer considered truly viable; we’re too aware of our multi-gendered, super-variedly-queer, and let’s be frank, racially diverse present society to embrace a world predicated on separating out the genders—especially given the many overlapping identities we all possess. That said, it was interesting to read in light of the historical knowledge I had just ingested by way of Barker and Scheele’s book. When it comes to the power of language, Gate to Women’s Country embodies a vocabulary that both reflected a nascent understanding of gender and queer theory.
TWs: sexual assault, murder.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (DAW, 2010) was both the most difficult book I’ve read this year to date as well as the most difficult for me to explain my response to. I went into it with full awareness that it would be triggering. For one thing, literally all of the people I trust who have read this book have found it triggering and told me so, and just to confirm that, I had started the book last year after I found it at the Missoula Book Exchange, and I had to put it down almost immediately. It took me a year to find a moment where I was in the right mental head space to survive the book’s exploration of the effects of sexual assault and bearing witness to genocide, and a big part of me—a big part—still wasn’t ready. And will never be ready. I’m not going to unpick the threads of my response to those scenes throughout the book, but suffice it to say, Okorafor does not shy away from showcasing the effects of trauma. The damage is real.
Leaving aside the book’s central trauma narrative feels a little bit like a betrayal of the book’s central plot, but it’s necessary for me to distance myself enough, emotionally, to get at what interested me the most about this book: its intersection with the language-as-power literary archetype. Language, in Who Fears Death as in any other Okorafor work, is always deliberate. Its function is to reflect the lived experience of African peoples in diaspora in our off-the-page world, as well as to shape the experiences of characters on the page. Okorafor has often gone on the record to explain what she was doing with language in Who Fears Death, and the scope of what she is doing is much bigger than just including real-world spoken languages and dialects—although doing so, and acknowledging the presence and diversity of the peoples who use them, is vitally important as well. Science fiction and fantasy haven’t always been welcoming to #OwnVoices authors and diverse characters, but it is much richer—much more compelling—for having made some progress on that front. Okorafor also uses the divide between written and spoken language to great effect throughout Who Fears Death, with nsibidi—a form of pictographic symbolic communication indigenous to the African continent in what is present-day Nigeria, and totally worthy of many lifetimes of study—serving as a manifestation of magic and thought throughout. Okorafor has tweeted that Chapter 61, which consisted solely of a juju nsibidi symbol called the peacock and symbolized argument, represented Onyesonwu’s internal conflict as she made an important decision. This way of approaching language will feel familiar to those readers who have already tackled Akata Witch, where it is refined still further.
There’s so much more that could be said about this book in respect to its strengths and its weaknesses, its take (or lack of take?) on gender, and the ways in which it allows us to receive and interpret and use language. It’s never comfortable, but that’s true of much of the worthiest science fiction and fantasy.
Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra (Harper Voyager, 2018) takes this conversation about the power of language to shape and reflect reality to a truly mind-warping, brilliant level. If you’re sensitive to spoilers, you will absolutely need to skip this review; although there’s no way I can truly talk about the role of language here without giving away some crucial plot details, I still feel duty-bound to do what I can—both to talk about it, and to not talk about it too much. Which of course is going to work out just fine, right?
Ahem. (Here goes nothing.)
Vita Nostra follows Sasha, a somewhat disaffected teenager preparing for the next phase of her education. Everything looks set to follow a somewhat reasonably mundane path until she meets Farit, a strange man who asks her do weird, inexplicable tasks which bring both their own inherent rewards (Sasha finds that she feels, in a way, compelled to do them … although it’s always unclear how enjoyable this is) and material rewards as well (she vomits coins whenever she succeeds at completing one of these tasks). The tasks are risky, too, both to Sasha’s family and future as well as to her physical safety and public reputation. All the little tasks and the coin-vomiting, it turns out, are just a precursor to the real story—a couple hundred pages of agonizing over learning how to read books that are, conventionally at least, totally unreadable. Sasha has to rewire her brain to do so, and it turns out she’s fairly good at doing so. At this point in the story, I felt as though I was finding my feet and figuring out how the magic system (if you can call it that) worked. I was wrong. And in a twisty, tortuous, completely delightful way! As it turns out, reading about students breaking their brains to understand the world anew is not such a foreign concept, and in the right hands—with the right translator—this is not nearly so unpleasant to read about as one might think. Sasha is a stubborn, determined student, and entirely relatable in a “Hermione Granger in a leather jacket, smoking in a derelict stairwell” way.
Now that I think about it, that’s kind of hot.
Anyway, the Dyachenkos render a world where language can literally shape reality, if you can only understand it. If you are, in a sense, the language. I’ve rarely read a more life-affirming scene than I have in Vita Nostra’s conclusion, where what makes us us and what makes language itself merge into a glorious mess of reality-defying, reality-defining worldbuilding.
The Wayward Children series just keeps getting better and better! After the first novella, which introduced us to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, each book in the series has followed one (or two) of those children back to their worlds—the worlds which have shaped them, made them who they are, and to which they long to return. In true C.S. Lewis fashion, access to these worlds presents itself rarely and in the form of magical doors, and in true door-ish fashion, each one forces two questions: To which world do I belong? To which world do I want to belong? And the children must decide, must commit, to the future self they want to become.
While none of the books in the Wayward Children series are exactly subtle about their investigation (and instigation) of identity formation, In an Absent Dream is even more on the nose than the rest. It chronicles the comings and goings of Katherine, called Lundy whose family name as well as her family history has shaped her into a fervent rule-follower. Her father heads up the local school, and as a result, Lundy has trouble finding peers willing to brave her father’s gaze in order to become her friend. She takes solace in doing things the right way, by following whatever stated rules the world delivers her. And she falls through a door in a tree into the world of the Goblin Market—yes, that’s right, Christina Rossetti’s iconic (and deeply disturbing) poem is the basis for this high-logic world, where all aspects of life, especially friendships, are carried out on a shared understanding of “fair value.” I didn’t much like Rossetti’s poem when I was required to read it in college, in part because it deeply sexualizes eating food, and as a sex-repulsed asexual person who adores eating, that was deeply repellent. (Don’t take this thing I love and make it about sex, damn it!) I am thoroughly happy, however, with McGuire’s take on the world of Rossetti’s poem, and I’m almost—almost!—tempted to go back and revisit my required reading list of proto-feminist college texts.
For McGuire, the Goblin Market isn’t about sex or even sexual liberation, but instead about the roots and core of identity itself. Who are we, and what do we believe to be true and fair about ourselves? What constitutes fair value, and its contextual underpinnings, becomes the fundamental problem that Lundy must solve—for her own sake, as well as the sakes of her friends and family. Get it wrong, and you might just end up transformed into something you’re not. Or that you are, but don’t quite want to be. Whatever the case may be, the process will be fair, very very fair.
The Goblin Market itself, a sort of global consciousness, is the arbiter of fair value, balancing the needs and expectations of each participant in its myriad negotiations. Once Lundy figures out its rules, the world of the Goblin Market ends up making far more sense than her—our—birth world, where the rules are drawn up by those in power, and enforced according to those same people according to whim and convenience. The real world has rules, McGuire reminds us, but they only make sense to a few people.
There are so many bits and pieces of In an Absent Dream to love, but I have to say it’s the language, and the confusion between language and selfhood that ripped my heart out at last. McGuire understands people, is what it ultimately comes down to. She handles other lives with tenderness and … yes, she gives them fair value. Reading In an Absent Dream as the fifth in this sequence of five books brought home this idea that we are language, and we exist in conversation with others. She understands that life is made up of questions, asked and answered and unanswered and constantly negotiated.
Sometimes, books come to us at just the right time, and in just the right order. That was certainly the case with these five books for me—they all contemplate, and interrogate, and navigate the trappings and possibilities of language. As form. As function. As novum. As a way to get at who we are as human beings, how we live together, and who we can become.