When I came to literature as a profession I did so because I fell in love with words at a young age. Not necessarily the big words, not the dictionary or the thesaurus. I fell in love, really, with how the simple words could cause so much pain or intense pleasure.
This, I saw all around me and not just in the books that I read. Language seemed like the backbone of communication and that made a lot of sense to me. It seemed to shape cultures and ways of thinking. Before I came to university I was, without knowing it, a structuralist in a way.
Then, I went to college where I learned that many “academics” question the nature of language: that all words are really meaningless to a certain extent — they are all at least problematic. Questioning the very essence of how humans understand themselves became my preoccupation.
Does the color “orange” mean the same thing in the Zulu language as it does in American English (a topic of an undergraduate conference paper I presented)? Then, when Lacan uses the word “women” does he really use it differently than Kristeva or Irigaray (a topic of a paper I wrote for my MA degree)? Then, are all words really centerless,empty things, especially “self,” as Derrida or Hegel, Carlyle or even Descartes would have me believe (I undertake this in my introduction to my dissertation)?
Through the years, this is a summary of my thinking about language in very simple terms.
Beyond academia, language has frustrated me.
Once I went out for a walk with this really brilliant and sweet woman. I wanted so much to make a connection with her: to be her friend. She seemed curious about me and excited to be near. I got carried away and told her my life story, mostly because she seemed so open and even interested. It started raining on our walk but we (I) pushed on. We even did laps. I felt so enlivened and relieved to use so many words to articulate my experiences. Then, we went home and I realized that I was talking the entire time about myself because she made herself so open to it. I worried. Had I said too much? Come to find out, all the four times that I contacted her after this walk (for dinner, for dancing, for tea, for chatting) she never returned any of my calls or emails. And we have never spoken since.
I had used my words completely wrong, despite having good intentions.
Then, before this, I had a good friend at university. I really admired her because she was outspoken, strong, and a real advocate of women’s issues. We went out for lunch once and we were talking about the complexities of sexuality. I said something like “I wish that people wouldn’t be so scared to say that they feel attraction for both — or all — genders. I mean, how does someone come to question her sexuality at all? Don’t we all innately know what attracts us? If we open ourselves bravely to feelings then we shouldn’t feel ashamed of what arises. How does a person not know, for example, that he is gay?” What I meant to say was something positive. I meant to open a conversation about shame and how to combat it. I wanted to let my friend, who was bisexual, know that I was understanding and interested to learn about her background. What ensued was a horrible silence and we didn’t speak again until she moved to another state, about two years later.
In both cases, the friend never told me that I had offended her and I was left guessing for a long time what happened.
Then, a couple days ago I posted on a friend’s facebook a comment in response to her confession that she had been sexually abused as a child. I responded with something like “I am so sorry to hear about your abuse. This nation, like nations before it, is founded on the abuse of children.” Currently, I am writing a book about the female pedophile in the history of Western culture and I just taught a class that integrated the issue a child abuse in the Victorian period as a way to define nationality. So, it was on the tip of my tongue. And I think it’s true. So, one of my friend’s friends got into a debate with me about making such a seemingly unfounded, broad, generalizing comment. She wanted to throw into question words like “nation.” How can you use the word “nation?” Haven’t you read Benedict Anderson? And so, the debate between us went on and I ended up putting most words in scare quotes. Well, if you’re going to question the word “nation” then you’ve got to question the word “child,” “abuse,” “word,” “food,” “self,” etc. There is really, then, nothing that anyone can say that is real. So, we “friended” each other and now I have actually made a friend — rather than lost one — by being over-the-top and hyperbolic with my language. That would be a first.
I consider myself a good communicator — because I say what I want and what I mean — yet words have always gotten me into trouble. They are really dangerous and not everyone likes words that are frank, to the point, simple, and close to what I feel.
So, when I picked up Ursula K. Le Guin’s young adult novel The Wizard of Earthsea (American, 1968), I was intrigued immediately by the plot. This first book in the Earthsea chronicle centers on a young and egotistical boy, Sparrowhawk, with wizardly powers of a mage, who learns that in order to unlock the secrets of the world, one must learn the true name of a thing.
Le Guin’s novel posits that every being has a true name and if one can learn it then one can understand the true nature of life and death.
Of all the interesting aspects of the novel, this appealed to me the most. Sparrowhawk’s true name is actually Ged and he unleashes a shadow of himself who stalks him, while performing a deathly spell prematurely. The power of the spell almost kills him and scars his body: it also humbles him. The shadow hunts Ged until Ged becomes desperate and turns around to hunt the shadow (I was reminded very much of George MacDonald’s Phantastes). He ultimately defeats the shadow by giving it its true name: Ged.
A true word. A true language. That seemed so beautiful to me.
But then, I understood the moral of the story. As Ged matures and acquires more true words, he becomes increasingly silent. The owner of the true speech rarely speaks.
And so I ponder: what is communication? Is silence a token of wisdom?
This is the first fantasy novel that I have read since I was a child (that isn’t Victorian) and I was surprised to find it labeled “young adult.” I wondered: what does “young adult” mean? Why is all fantasy fiction labeled as young adult? As a grown woman, I feel like I have a lot to learn from fiction for children.