I’m waiting a week or two before I start revisions on “Lester Young,” and in the meantime, I have a story idea — something very suited to Analog, in fact, or maybe Interzone since they have a submissions period starting soon — and the idea is a fusion of an old story idea I had, called “The Refugees,” and a totally different thing I was thinking about. I don’t want to talk too much about the story, so I’ll talk about the thing that got me thinking instead.
I was walking to the grocery store — we have a Tesco-Homeplus in my neighborhood — and looking around at how people interact, and something hit me. Probably partly the result of off-and-on discussions I’ve been having with velourmane, partly because of things I’ve heard from my girlfriend about her stint working in various hospitals here, and partly a thought that emerges from my readings on the Comfort Women issue here in Korea.
Anyway, the thought that hit me was this kind of weird realization about how profoundly, for example, women need to suppress whatever natural resistance and refusal they might have to suppressive, exploitative, sexist culture and history — especially history. Yes, sexism is still a problem in the modern world, but it seems to me that in Korea, there’s far less historical distance between the worst excesses and the much-less-oppressive contemporary reality.
(ie. Sexism hasn’t been wiped out anywhere, but in Korea, you can still meet old women who were given names like “Disappointment” — and lived their lives with these names — because their parents wanted ardently to have a male child and fulfill their Confucian duty. I once read excerpts from a book that described the history of women’s emancipation in the West as being the story of a successive chain of waves of feminist activism, <s>often</s> at certain times called other things. But in Korea, the history seems to be much more compacted, the amount of change much more rapid, compressed, and radical. So while I instinctively agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area, I also think the amount of rapid improvement, and the degree, surely outstrips the amount and pace of recent improvements in the West. Then again, it’s always easier to improve when there’s a lot to fix, and always harder to improve when things are doing better.
(But my main point in this aside is that nowhere I know in the West can a woman alive today actually meet, face-to-face, another Western woman who lived in a society where it was normative to name a female child, “Disappointment,” or lived in other conditions so extreme that we in the West need to go back a century or three for comparisons.)
All of that in mind, I looked at the women on the street — the college girls walking hand-in-hand with their campus boyfriends; the middle schoolers in small packs, carrying their textbooks home and snacking on street food, strolling past high school boys chatting by the street food stands; the middle aged women carrying shopping bags to their cars, side by side with their husbands. And I thought of how dependent all this peaceful coexistence is on the non-immanence of history. On a kind of strategic forgetfulness that, it seems to me, could possibly be so powerful that it comes into effect within a few moments, but which is more astounding given the whole mass of historical realities the memory of which it suppresses…)
I felt this particularly interesting in the example of Korean women only because the historical examples of what seems to Westerners to be outright medieval treatment of women are only a couple of generations back — within living historical memory, in fact, if only anyone were to look long enough at it. So the question of what it would take for humans to break from of that whole mass of historical baggage, and whether people might or might not be willing to do so, as well as what it might be like to be confronted with it again once people had done so, all fascinated me for a moment on that street.
And the result is this story, Jinni the Quae. (Though that’s only a working title, I think.)
Now, on writing. I recently gave a friend feedback on a story, advising him not to use gendered pronouns for his hermaphrodite alien POV characters. But man, it’s hard not to do it. I’m working on some characters of, well, let’s say complicated posthuman sexual configuration, and I don’t particularly want to use one of those invented pronouns. In fact, I want the absence of gendered pronouns to be a kind of empty linguistic space into which “he” and “she” are jammed, so that the empty space has no form of inherent resistance as it might if it were filled with “ve/ver/vis” or some other human neuter pronoun.
It’s interesting how some literary theorists go on and on about the gendering of language, especially driven on by French theorists whose language, French, is crazy-gendered. But what’s interesting to me is the genetic flaw in that argument. Korean society is highly gendered, and there is some gender specific language, but I think it’s fair to say Korean is much less gendered than French or even English. Where an innocuous “his” used to be taken to mean “his or hers”, the equivalent in Korean, to the best of my knowledge, is “that one’s.” Even “him” or “her” is just as often “that person” as it is “that boy/man” or “that girl/woman”.
Yes, yes, there is the bewildering complexity of relationships wherein maternal aunts are called different things that paternal aunts, or that men and women use wholly different words to address someone as “Elder Brother”, for example. There is the appelation of the predix “yeo-” that is sometimes used to connote the feminine of something, for which the default is thereby apparently male — but it’s not rigorously used, either. One needn’t necessarily add “yeo-” unless one wishes to highlight the fact, as far as I know. It seems to me that Korean is, at least, not obsessively gendered like French or English, where gender is present in just about every everyday sentence. Gender might be present in a lot of the thinking underlying everyday Korean speech, but one needn’t necessarily expect that it proceeds from, or is expressed through, any specific and uniform grammatical structures.
All of which is to say that some of this language-determines/reflects-culture business is probably claptrap. Societies can be much more strictly gender-divisive than French society, without being linguistically so. Which reminds me of an argument I had with a friend about using gender-neutral language in writing. He had decided that the best response to the old-fashioned practice of using the male pronoun as the universal was to unilaterally adopt the female pronoun as the universal. (My poorly-worded attempt to explain that good writing could carefully avoid gendered pronouns and that replacing one imbalance with another didn’t seem to make much of an impression, but the vigorousness of his, to me baseless, argument certainly made an impression on me.)
Anyway, my observation thus far — at only 500 words into the story, too! — is that it’s really hard to use English in a non-gendered way, or to use the language in a way that a society for which gender and race and hierarchy are long-abandoned things. Yet that’s the task I’m taking upon myself… that, and then colliding that society with it’s long-suppressed past… in 5000 words or less.