The following excerpt from de Beauvoir’s classic, The Second Sex, provides a concise introduction to the construction of woman as Other. This text is invaluable in understanding structuralism, and will be referenced by both Rachel and myself as we end our discussion of Gilgamesh and begin our discussion of Circe.
de Beauvoir, Simone. From Second Sex. Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, edited by Heather Masri, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009, pp. 179-185.
Over the past few years I’ve been given the freedom to offer a British literature survey course, which I’ve subtitled, “Fantasy, Faith and Philosophy”. Although the course includes traditional canonical British texts, its primary focus has been the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Observant students skimming over the syllabus will immediately pick up on what is missing from all of the readings – texts by women and people of color. In the past I’ve argued, with some justification, that the pioneers of fantasy fiction in the 19th and 20th century were Christian white men, and that white men continued to dominate the field well into the 20th century, even as female authors, like Naomi Mitchison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Madeline L’Engle, were breaking through the barriers with innovative and, frequently, subversive, fantasy fiction. Still, the roles of males as creators, consumers and protagonists of fantasy fiction were so entrenched that Ursula K. Le Guin struggled to bring female characters alive in her Earthsea series, and J. K. Rowling was advised by her publisher to use her initials on her books so as to not reveal that the Harry Potter series was penned by a woman. Additionally, the privileged status of white male fantasists in the genre was (and, frequently, is) perpetuated by teachers like me, who have not made room in their classrooms for female voices.
As I began to contemplate the absence of female writers in my fantasy class, an absence made more conspicuous because I include female authors in ALL of my other classes, I realized that the absence of writers of color was equally problematic. More disturbingly, while I could name many white female fantasists, I could not name ANY writers of color in the genre.
This past year has remedied that problem, both because I discovered Octavia E. Butler, who identified her novel, Kindred, as fantasy (although many critics feel more comfortable labeling it speculative fiction), and because the twenty-first century has seen a small but growing number of authors of color, particularly women, enter the arena of fantasy fiction. As Rachel Martin observed to me the other day, we are now in the fortunate position where we could teach a class that consists entirely of fantasy fiction by female authors of color.
Two of these authors, Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi have already received much deserved recognition for their novels. Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has been picked up for a television series by HBO, and plans for a movie based on Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone are already underway. These two novels are refreshingly subversive because of both authors have created worlds that are thoroughly infused with West African culture and have created strong, black, female protagonists who experience and triumph over intense hardship and suffering. Furthermore, both books are perhaps more deserving of serious discussion than more traditional fantasy novels because Okorafor and Adeyemi have used their world-building as an opportunity to explore real societal problems. Because of their commitment to creating a discussion around social justice, these novels belong to the tradition of black social protest novels, like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Okorafor’s Who Fears Death opens a dialogue at the intersection of misogyny, tribalism, and environmental degradation. Borrowing from the Sudanese civil war, Okorafor builds a world where rape is a weapon of war, where women are dehumanized, where the dark-skinned Oke have come to accept suffering at the hands of the lighter-skinned Nuru as an inevitable consequence of what the Great Book says, and where resources are scarce. At root, though, while a number of reviewers have labelled this novel a dystopia, it is in fact, if not utopian, at least optimistic, in part because it gives voice to the marginalized and dispossessed. Indeed, storytelling is central to the resolution of the novel. In the first pages of the novel, the protagonist, Onyesonwu, tells an unidentified listener, “Tonight, you want to know how I came to be what I am. You want to know how I got here… It’s a long story. But I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you. You’re a fool if you believe what others say about me. I tell you my story to avert all those lies” (Okorafor 5-6). Through her life, and by telling her truth, Onyesonwu sparks a rewriting of the Great Book in the magic script of her people, Nsibidi. This theme of speaking for one’s self, of controlling one’s identity, physically, intellectually and spiritually, is central to the novel.
Like Who Fears Death, Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone takes on ethnic and racial conflicts. Where Okorafor draws from the Sudan, Adeymi seems to derive her inspiration from the Rwandan genocide. Prior to the events depicted in Children of Blood and Bone, King Saran orders a great Raid in which the dark-skinned, white-haired adult maji are killed. King Saran has also found a way to prevent the remaining maji from contacting the gods, who provide their magic. Subsequently the maji are forced into ghettos or labor camps, or are forced to fight each other for the entertainment of the lighter skinned Orishans. The term maggot, which is frequently applied to the dis-empowered maji, echoes the use of the word cockroaches to describe the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.
Although Adeyemi clearly models her story on the Rwandan conflict, the impetus for the novel comes, as she makes clear in her “Author’s Note”, in part from “seeing stories of unarmed black men, women, and children being shot by the police” (526). As Adyemi goes on to explain, the book is meant to bring recognition to the injustices committed against America’s black communities and to inspire readers to work for change.
Just as Tolkien rooted Middle-earth in the languages and mythologies of northern Europe, so too, these authors have rooted their stories in the fertile soil of West Africa. The name of Okorafor’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Igbu for “Who Fears Death”, and magical texts are written in Nsibidi script, a very real script from southeastern Nigeria. Onyesonwu’s mother is an Oke – the name of the people being derived from a male name in Igbu that Chinua Achebe makes use of in Things Fall Apart. Onyesonwu’s biologic father, a sorcerer who raped her mother, belongs to the light-skinned Nuru people – an Egyptian name. Because Onyesonwu is a mix of these two ethnic groups, she belongs to an outcast group called the Ewu – a name derived from a Nigerian city.
In Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Yoruba is the language used to invoke the gods who gift magic to the Diviners. The gods are based on the orisha, or divine spirits of the Yoruba faith. The magical power that runs through the protagonist, Zelie, and other magi, is called ashe – a term from the Yoruba faith that means life force. The connection between Africa and Adeyemi’s Orisha is confirmed by place names like Lagos, Warri, Gombe and Benin City.
Although both Who Fears Death and Children of Blood and Bone are very well written and, as I’ve demonstrated, unique in their creation of African fantasy world on par with Narnia and Middle-earth, there are weaknesses with both novels. Structurally both novels follow very traditional, one might say clichéd, quest narratives. As Caitlyn Paxson noted in her NPR review of Children of the Bone:
If I had to find something to criticize, it would be this: I read an awful lot of fantasy, and I love stories and characters that subvert my expectations. Children of Blood and Bone is a fairly straightforward quest narrative most of the way through, and I didn’t encounter a lot of surprises.
While Nnendi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is also a quest story, she is more adept at subverting expectations. Of course, the difference between the two authors might have less to do with their abilities and more to do with their intended audiences. Okorafor is writing for adults, and does not shy away from graphic rape scenes, or depictions of female genital mutilation. It’s entirely appropriate that George R. R. Martin has been signed on as producer for the television show based on her novel. By contrast, Adyemi is writing for a Young Adult audience, what Rachel refers to as the Harry Potter crowd.
In spite of minor weaknesses, both novels are significant additions to the fantasy genre. Okorafor and Adeyemi are, like Tolkien and Lewis, pioneers in the fantasy genre. It is to be hoped that more authors of color will join them in tearing down the borders of fairyland.
Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company, 2018.
Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death. DAW books, 2010.
This is Rachel – I still haven’t figured out how to post under my own name…that’s rather poignant within this topic. This is the second blog that I have started about The Dispossessed; however, the other post ended up being too much information for “just a blog” and will end up being a scholarly article on “Language, Masculine Discourse, and Sexual Assault in Le Guin’s Feminist Critique of Utopia.” This blog post is NOT that. But it does tie in with that overall theme. So… on to names.
Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night. Coincidentally, we are reading and discussing The Dispossessed this week. I also always teach two of Le Guin’s short stories in my ENG111 each semester (and sometimes in my Women’s Lit and American Lit courses). I love the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, and so do many of my friends. I received not one, not two, but four separate text messages from other lovers of Le Guin grieving SF’s and feminist literature’s loss. One of those texts simply said, “Ursula.” That name alone was all that the text needed to say. I knew exactly who it meant, I knew what it was about that name that my friend was saying, and I felt the same emotions that my friend felt, simply by reading the name “Ursula.”
This set me thinking about names and the meaning/importance of names and the act of naming (or unnaming). In my literature classes, I regularly tell students that the names of characters are important, that authors intentionally choose the names of people and places (as well as titles, but we’ll talk about that in class tomorrow). In the article, “Personal Names and Identity in Literary Context,” Benedicta Windt-Val notes the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self. …[P]ersonal names and place names are some of the most important tools of the author in the creation of credible characters placed in a literary universe that gives the impression of being authentic.” This highlights the significance between a name and an identity, as well as a name and credibility and being authentic. In many of Le Guin’s writings we see the connection between name and identity, including The Dispossessed, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “She Unnames Them.” However, Le Guin isn’t simply naming or giving her characters names to signify their credibility or authenticity; rather she is leaving them nameless, “unnaming” them, or giving them computer generated, generic names, as a means to deconstruct and demonstrate the power in a name, challenging the naming power, challenging those who traditionally name.
Let’s look at The Dispossessed as our first example: the women and men of Anarres have non-gender specific names, given out by a computer, so that no two names are the same. Each name is a random assemblage of letters to create something uniquely unlike anyone else. This process is based on the teachings of Odo. In Le Guin’s precursor short story “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974), Odo says that the anarchist movement was “not strong on names. They had no flag. Slogans came and went as the need did. …But when it came to names they were indifferent, accepting and ignoring whatever they got called, afraid of being pinned down or penned in” (28). Out of this, the unimportance of names arises on Annares.
A name in many cultures, including many names in Latin based languages, implies gender, one aspect of identity. In the arena of gender, Annares’ computer generated names stand tall. On Urras, when discussing gender differences on Annares, the Urrasi physicists complain and/or comment on how Annaresti names are useless for telling gender, which they find troubling and a bit offensive: “‘Gvarab was a woman?’ Pae said in genuine surprise and laughed. Oiie looked unconvinced and offended, “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly” (74). The idea of gender equality escapes the Urrasi people and the binary genders of men and women not only have distinctive, identifying names, but entirely separate spheres. The names of Annarestis deny Urrasis from easily dismissing a woman based upon her gender, as defined by her name. In this way, to this end of eliminating gender differences in names, the computer naming process on Urres works well. However, one’s name on Urres still ties closely to individual identity.
The computer generated name isn’t a name that carries with it tones or meaning from previous owners or of family heritage. The name doesn’t give the child something to live up to. For most on Annares, this naming process and their unique name appears freeing (at least that’s how Shevek seems to view it). However, we are shown that the name still ties deeply to the core of identity, as we see in the one instance, when Shevek meets someone with a too similar name. This other man insists on beating up Shevek (who tries to defend himself, but he’s still a scrawny boy). [Side bar: is it odd or coincidental that both of these characters with similar names both happen to be men? It strikes me as an odd coincidence and I believe Le Guin to be too crafty for this to merely be coincidence.] This instance demonstrates that there is ownership over the name and that ownership is worth fighting for. If their names were exactly alike, we could envision a society plagued with these sort of name squabbles. But even in this solitary instance, rather than unite people because they don’t have family ownership over the name or because the power isn’t in the hands of someone naming, the name acts as an individualizing tool. Each name carries with it the burden of being distinctly unique and is easily threatened when it is reveled to not be so unique after all. This name, albeit randomly assigned, still carries with it the weight of identity, and here that is the identity of the individual (not the collective) and the needs of the individual seem to take precedent in this example. Le Guin enforces the notion of the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self.” Even within a system where a computer randomly assigns a name, the name provides a person with a strong sense of identity.
Naming also plays a key role in Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them.” The title tells us as much. In this short story (read it here), an unnamed narrator goes around and unnames animals, or rather she convinces them to give their names back. “Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifferences with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like the words of Odo when discussing the anarchists? The unnamed narrator acknowledges that there is power in naming and in unnaming: “it was somewhat more powerful than I had anticipated.” However, she doesn’t want the power, but rather is handing the power back to the animals to decide on the names they do or do not want. She then does the same thing with her name; she gives it back. She “went to Adam, and said, “You and your father lent me this [name] – gave it to me actually. It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit me very well lately. But thanks very much! It’s really been very useful.” With the reference to Adam, the animals, the father, and a later comment about the garden, as a reader we know who the narrator is and our urge is to name her. Le Guin knows this. If I ask my students who have just read this, “who is the narrator?” they immediately tell me that it is Eve. But she isn’t. That was the name that Adam and God the father gave her. They defined her, pinned her down, and penned her in with naming her what they wanted. The narrator gives that name back; she helps the animals to give their names back. She frees herself and helps the animals free themselves as well. Her identity and the identity of the animals now resides in their own hands. They define themselves, they name themselves, they create themselves, and they now control and tell their own story. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989), Le Guin notes “[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard” (Dancing 14849). For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. This father tongue, THE Father’s tongue named everything and everyone in the world. It not only “claims a privileged relationship to reality,” it IS reality. All of reality. This “father-tongue” is what the unnamed narrator in “She Unnames Them” is rejecting. It isn’t a forceful rejection, but a giving the gift back, a careful, deliberate unnaming, reclaiming of her self, of her identity.
Lastly, to note the importance of names in Le Guin’s work, I direct us to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (read here). In this short story, our again unnamed narrator introduces us to Omelas. There isn’t a single singular name in the entire story. In this story, only “the people of Omelas” exist, with only one exception: the child who is not considered part of the people. “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.” This child is kept away from the people. This child MUST be kept separate from the people. No one can talk to the child. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” All of their happiness depends upon the child being kept apart and dehumanized and all the people of Omelas know this: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The unnamed, ungendered child is no longer human; even the pronoun “it” is used in reference. The child is without a name because it is without an identity, stripped of clothes, dignity, love, and name. The removal of the name here is used as a weapon against the child to dehumanize it, which is what needs to happen for the society to exist. The people of Omelas are also unnamed in the story though. This unnaming allows them to evade individual responsibility for the abominable misery of the child. As a whole, collective people, no one person holds any other one person responsible. No one is to blame. No name, no blame. The close link between a name and feelings of identity applies when all the people identify as one collective Omelas consciousness.
In many other of Le Guin’s works she plays with the notion of names and the naming process. She clearly links naming with power and names with identity. Logan Pearsall Smith said, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” Le Guin shows names as labels to past, present, and future behavior. Her name conveys an essence of brilliance from her past behaviors and her life of writing. May we always remember her name and the power therein.
As Rachel and I have noted in the past, the title of a work of literature often serves as a key to understanding the work. Why might Le Guin have chosen The Dispossessed as the title? Where does she use the words “possessed” and/or “dispossessed”? Early editions of the novel had the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia; the subtitle was dropped from later editions. How so we see this novel a utopian narrative? Why did Le Guin modify Utopia with “ambiguous”? How does dropping the subtitle change our experience of the novel?
Walls are a recurring motif in the novel. How do walls come to mean different things at different points in the novel? How do walls affect consciousness?
At one, Shevek tells Takver that he is going “to unbuild walls” (332). Why does Le Guin have Shevek employ the unusual verb “unbuild” instead of more common verbs like “tear down” (as in “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear down this wall”)? Are there any disadvantages to “unbuilding” walls? Takver cautions Shevek, “It may get pretty drafty” (333). Obviously Shevek’s determination to “unbuild” walls has consequences that extend to the people around him – the people on Anarres and Urras. How might his act be responsible or irresponsible?
Finally, it is impossible to think about the wall in the novel without thinking about the “Make America Great Again” movement and its isolationist and nativist philosophy. What might the novel tell us about living in the age of Trump?
In the novel we are introduced to two dominant languages – Iotic, which presumably evolved, and Pravic, which was artificially constructed. How do these languages shape the consciousness of the speakers? In particular, we should consider the evolving consciousness of Shevek, who is the only person who speaks both languages (Sabul can read Iotic, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak it). On page 344, while both communicating through their second language (Iotic), Terran ambassador Keng tells Shevek, “It’s as if you invented human speech! We can talk – at last we can talk together.” What are the ramifications of this “invention” of communication, of “human speech,” particularly if it reflects Shevek’s idiosyncratic consciousness?
Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Family
A common trope of utopian and dystopian literature is the re-imagining of familial structures. In Orwell’s 1984 sex is anathema, and as a consequence romance and families do not threaten the power of the state. In Huxley’s Brave New World promiscuous sex is encouraged, and sex is entirely separated from procreation, thus preventing families from undermining the state. How do partnerships, marriages, sexual relationships and familial ties on Anarres and Urras affirm or undermine social institutions and social cohesion?
The Odonians use “brother” and “sister” to refer to each other, thus creating a fictionalized family, while, at the same time, the elimination of the personal pronoun in connection to biologic family members (i.e. “my mother”), along with the removal of family names or naming undercuts the traditional notion of family bonds. How is it, then, that family bonds, like the bond Shevek feels for Sadik, survive? To what extent has society on Anarres failed to escape old familial structures?
Shevek, as Odonian, has been indoctrinated for his whole life into respecting the personhood of others. What factors, then, lead to his sexual assault on Vea? How does Shevek’s behavior prior to the assault establish his failure to recognize Vea as a full human? Why does Le Guin include the sexual assault in the novel and then not return to it after the fact?
How tolerant are the Anarresti of queer sexuality? Does Bedap the only character who is explicitly identified as “pretty definitely homosexual” enjoy the same treatment as other characters (172)? What does the intercourse between Bedap and Shevek reveal about the function of sex in Anarresti society?
How are the gender roles of men and women different on Anarres from the gender roles of men and women on Urras? How do economics and language create or encourage those differences?
How does the conversation between Shevek and Ambassador Keng break the fourth wall and include us readers in the novel?