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Guest Post: Stephanie Saulter on Gender, Language and Understanding

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I first ran across Stephanie Saulter’s work through Cheryl Morgan’s review of Gemsigns, which I went on to race through voraciously and with huge admiration for the humane, sympathetic and interesting approach Saulter takes to questions of language, identity, humanity. So when Binary (my review) came out, with a title that was immediately evocative to me of the queer community, I grabbed it expecting to be blown away; and, although as she says she didn’t actively intend to deal with questions of queer identity, I found the resonances fascinating. That only increased when I met her at Satellite4 and chatted to her about the novel, and she spoke passionately about the resonances of the title for her, a woman of colour from Jamaica who studied at MIT in the 1980s. She agreed to write something on the resonances between the queer community and the ®Evolution novels for me; and that’s what lies below.

Oh, and for you unlucky Americans, Gemsigns is almost available to you – it’s hitting the States some time next month, while Binary is already out here in the UK.
~~~~~
One of the many pleasant surprises I’ve had in the year and a bit since Gemsigns was first published is the warm reception that it, and I, have received from members of what I broadly think of as the queer community – LGBT or QUILTBAG if you prefer (though I chafe at the inelegance of those acronyms). I say ‘surprise’ because I hadn’t mentally tagged any of the themes of the ®Evolution novels as being specifically queer – and as a straight, cisgendered woman with little personal experience of queer issues I wouldn’t have felt qualified to address them if I had.

But neither was I taken aback, because I’d never thought of the issues of discrimination, dehumanisation, exclusion and exoticisation that are threaded throughout Gemsigns and its sequel Binary as being fundamentally different for queer folks than for any other marginalised, minority group. I suspect that the experience of inequality, indifference or incomprehension is much the same, whether it’s rooted in value judgements about race or class; the historical legacy of conquest and colonialism; or biologically determinist views of gender, sex and sexuality. And the resonance that my books have had within the queer community has had the very welcome effect, for me, of introducing me more fully to it; broadening and deepening my own understanding; and making me even more aware of those parallels.

It’s also made me belatedly aware of some interesting quirks and coinages in the language around gender. Take, for example, the word ‘binary.’ I’ve always understood it to refer to any conjunction that is composed of two either-or alternatives, and most specifically as the word that describes base-2 numerical notation: the base code of computers and logic systems. It was with these general and specific meanings in mind that I selected it as the title for my second novel.

As such it describes the book perfectly; but at the time I had no idea that ‘binary’ had also become a code word, a sort of shorthand in discussions around understandings and definitions of gender. It wasn’t until a few months after Gemsigns came out, when I was both basking in that positive attention and learning the lingo of the queer community, that I realised there were going to be a lot of people for whom the title Binary would suggest something very specific.

Sorry about that. I didn’t know. Not that I would necessarily have done anything differently if I had known; but it’s a reminder of how much the degree to which we do or don’t understand each other comes down to the words we use, what we think those words mean, and what emotional resonance we attach to them. There’s an added irony in that one of the themes of Binary IS language – it’s there in the base code that the savant Herran manipulates, the genetic index that a desperately ill Rhys seeks, the twinspeak Rhys shares with his sister Gwen, Herran’s constrained vocabulary and codified syntax, Callan’s mission to translate knowledge from dead tongues into live ones, and the language of memory that illuminates the linked pasts of Aryel Morningstar and Zavcka Klist. It is, as much as anything else, a book about how communication happens, and what is won or lost when we get it right, or wrong.

Because another conceit of Binary is indeed the whole notion of binaries. Every foreground relationship or archetype is mirrored at least once, pursuing a broad theme that does not specifically address gender, but encompasses it within a wider commentary about perception and prejudice. So much of the way we comprehend each other comes down to the oppositional frames of reference we set up: us/them, good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong, normal/abnormal. Man/woman. Straight/gay. But human beings, and our cultures, societies and relationships, are far more complicated – and interesting – than those dichotomies would suggest. They make the world simple, but they don’t make it true.

I think it’s important to weave these issues into narrative; but I really dislike it when subtext gets in the way of the story. People come to fiction primarily to be entertained, and it’s part of my job as a writer to make sure that any deeper meanings in my work are subtle enough not to detract from that. The result is that I sometimes wonder whether my thematic conclusions are so obscure that no one will notice them but me. So I was really tickled when one of the first reviewers both enjoyed the story, and got the point right away: ‘Things are not binary.’

No, they’re not. There are so many more options. There are so many ways to think and to feel and to love and to live. There are so many ways to be human.
We need a better language for those breadths of possibility. We need a broader, more inclusive set of symbols and archetypes. We need to move beyond the binary programming that defaults between ones, and zeros.

As I said, I didn’t have the queer community specifically in mind when I wrote, or named, Binary. But I didn’t not have them in mind either. And I hope and believe that they, of all people, will understand what it is I’m talking about.

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1 Comment

  1. […] as well as publishing essays by luminaries in the field, including Kameron Hurley (twice!), Stephanie Saulter, Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette and Liz Bourke. I’m satisfied with the variety I covered […]

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