I’ve been asked to write a short essay on “The Language of Moths” for the Nebula Awards, which has placed me in the awkward position of talking about one of my own stories, which I don’t usually do, or like to do, for various reasons. This is my first stab at it, though.
*Revised with thanks to Jackie
The Language of “The Language of Moths”
Traditional fantasy holds up the natural world as better than the modern, postindustrial one we find ourselves living in these days. However, in writing “The Language of Moths”, it wasn’t a goal of mine to look backward into an agrarian past viewed by some as golden and pure. Instead I wanted to write about how language is a subjective matter, how even when people share a language, communication is often not achieved, how even within the traditional unit of the nuclear family, with its narrowly defined borders of membership, difference and otherness exists and is often misunderstood.
It’s possible to read the autistic girl, Dawn, in my story “The Language of Moths” as yet another magical fool in the history of fantasy archetypes. While writing it, she didn’t feel magical at all; for me she only spoke a different language from ours. If anything feels magical to me in this story, it’s the setting—more importantly, the relationship Dawn has with the setting—the place where she is able to understand the world around her for the first time in her life. Autistic authors who have found ways to bear witness to the conditions of their lives describe relationships with animals and nature that sound like utter fantasy but must be accepted as their reality. The autistic author Temple Grandin, for example, reported she could “see through a cow’s eyes,” which lead her to become an important designer of livestock restraint systems and slaughterhouses.
The language I used to write the story doesn’t reflect the unhappy circumstances of the characters. I used a more fanciful, florid language to emphasize the hopeful aspects of a story about characters who are dealing with many unfortunate life circumstances. I felt that a light-handed language could be interesting in contrast to events that might normally be portrayed with a starker language. It’s noted that, once the Carroll family returns home at the end of the story, Dawn, though able to make simple sentences depending on context and circumstances, is still not going to live a full life according to how we define that for “normal” people. There’s an elasticity and semi-meaninglessness to the social language of humans that surrounds her that’s never going to change for her. Dawn’s brother, Eliot, has been placed in therapy, that last-straw institution where people go to speak and be heard when no one else seems capable of hearing and comprehending them. Though there’s a promise that life will get better for Eliot in the future, he still has many years of unhappiness to endure before he finds what he needs. The father and mother continue on in their own lives, enjoying some success in their academic ventures. What they fail to do, though, is comprehend the lives of their children. All of this, for me, adds up to a downbeat vision of a life where we are most alone when surrounded by the people with whom we’re supposed to have our first experiences of love and loyalty.
The language of the story, then, was part of my attempt to write a story that felt like a children’s picture book with adult themes, though without any actual pictures. I think I managed that, but I think this may not be the story’s most obvious effect. That’s the sort of thing I like to do: create new reading effects without drawing direct attention to them. While I wrote, I imagined “The Language of Moths” as a small book, with accompanying illustrations, the sort that appear in books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A friction, a force that tugs and pulls at the same time, exists between scenes in which fireflies speak (the way animals and creatures do in fairy tales and fables) and scenes in which adolescent boys encounter a fraught, somewhat dangerous sexual experience in a summer cabin while parents huddle around a campfire outside, mere yards away, discussing their own problems (the way adolescents often encounter such things in coming of age stories). For me, finding a language to write a story that incorporates both kinds of story—fable and realism—was the goal.
It is, in fact, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that inspired me, in part, to write “The Language of Moths”. It’s why I named the family the Carrolls. It’s why I chose to see through Dawn’s eyes as well as Eliot’s, trying to explore the story through her vision of life as well. I saw her as a young woman who has fallen down a rabbit hole; but instead of entering a land where logic and language are suddenly turned on their heads, disorienting her, she enters a world where things suddenly make sense.