‘Is Gender necessary?’. This was the title of an essay written by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) in 1976 with a revised version in 1988. I know I have talked about Le Guin before on this blog but she was (and is) important. Don’t just take my word for it.
Maria Popova on The Marginalian blog calls Le Guin:
“One of the most important authors of our time…”
“… has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie.”
I wanted to read this particular essay to give myself some context and perspective for my review of, Beneath The Burning Wave : The Mu Chronicles Book One by Jennifer Hayashi Danns, which is all about gender pronouns. Sadly I was not able to read it as the essay is behind a paywall.
But I had better luck with another essay of Le Guin’s about gendered pronouns, entitled
“So, when I was born, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am. I am the generic ‘he’ as in , “if anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,’ or “a writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.”. That’s me. The writer, him. I am a man”
We are 50 years on from Ursula Le Guin’s Gethenians, a race who inhabited her book The Left Hand of Darkness, an androgynous race – neither male nor female – who yet for a short period each year become one or the other, adopt male or female characteristics including pregnancy and birth. Given the timings it is reasonable to say that although she was a science fiction and fantasy writer, the author knew it was a matter of time before these themes became neither the stuff of science fiction nor the stuff of fantasy.
In the end feminists gave Le Guin a hard time for failing to be sufficiently courageous in her ideas although exactly what such ‘sufficient courage’ would have looked like I’m not sure. I understand she claimed in ‘Is Gender Necessary?’ that the book had never been intended to be ‘about’ these things, that the real subject of The Left Hand of Darkness was not feminism or sex or gender but that these were the things that drew people’s attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they continue to do so.
We still don’t have an answer to the question that Le Guin posed, but we have a great many increasingly militant arguments about it. After beating about this particular feminist bush I come now to the book under review , a new YA fantasy Book one of three, Beneath The Burning Wave : The Mu Chronicles Book One by Jennifer Hayashi Danns, which is all about gendered pronouns.
The author, Jennifer Hayashi Danns, says in her note at the beginning of The Burning Wave “the book explores the origin of gender and the story begins with neopronouns. The Maymuan people use mu/mem/mir.
A neopronoun means a new pronoun. Aka, a made-up pronoun. That’s fine – this is fiction after all – but I couldn’t help thinking that a work which tossed about such a political hot potato would have more of a philosophy behind it. And is there any difference between calling everyone ‘mu’ and calling everyone ‘he’?
We are now in an age of gender fluidity of trans rights of cancel culture and opprobrium being heaped on famous authors who claim that biological sex matters. I have no intention of being drawn into that argument.
So to the plot, or the bit of it that I understood.
Twins Kaori and Kairi, are born on the island of Mu. They have some inherent powers whereby one controls fire, and one water. As in Harry Potter, the Matrix and numerous other fantasy stories there is a prophecy but there the similarity ends. Not much magic happens in these pages and no-one downloads into their brain an entire lifetime’s study of kung-fu. As the twins Kaori and Kairi, grow they become more and more competitive in the exercise of their powers which as a reader you feel can’t end well and sure enough it doesn’t. This is some kind of power struggle. It’s closer to Gormenghast in influence than the famed stories I have mentioned above; but even Steerpike might run screaming from this lot. Where is the empathy, where the vulnerability of these people?
This is a very violent book. There is hardly a scene where something grisly isn’t happening to someone. Ironically, in the midst of all the mayhem, an almost comic use by the characters of the expression ‘ratty’ as in ‘where the ratty hell is’ so and so. Or ‘I wish I wasn’t stuck on this stupid, ratty island…’ sounded to me like something that one of the Famous Five might have said.
Question: does violence in literature (art, TV, film, etc) give people ‘a safe space’ to explore themes of violence or does it just normalise ideas of violence?
But the idea of gender is to the fore when reading because the neopronouns continually beat one over the head, so it is to that which I turn to make sense of the story. Is the book ‘about’ gender or is this just a side issue for a story whose main thrust is prophecy and power and a whole host of other fantasy tropes? That was the question I was trying to answer as I read.
Mu is supposed to be an island of no gender. Those that give birth are called ‘carriers’, a gender neutral term, sure. It seemed to me as I read it that it was more an island of no gendered pronouns. In the second half of the book, one of the twins makes a break for freedom. Then gendered pronouns appear. Just like that someone has decided that instead of the ‘mu’ and there will be ‘he’ and ‘she’. I didn’t get as far as discovering whether the ‘carriers’ were now ‘she’. By this stage I was too confused.
Question: is this the origin of gender? Or the origin of a linguistics of gender. Here – it seems to me – is no gender fluidity but arguments about naming. Le Guin herself believed in the overwhelming power in a name. She wrote her whole Earthsea series around it. I am ‘he’ therefore I am a man.
If you feel there are more questions than answers in this article, I can only agree with you. I was disappointed in this book having looked forward to reading it. There is a second and third book due eventually so perhaps all will become clear (and less violent) later on.
Thank you to Net Galley and to publisher Harper Collins for approving me for a review copy of Beneath the Burning Wave.