The Language of “The Language of Moths”

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.



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5 responses to “The Language of “The Language of Moths””

  1. Karen M Avatar

    That’s really cool, Chris, and I think anyone reading it would want to read your story. The concluding paragraph takes it home nicely.

  2. Jackie M. Avatar
    Jackie M.

    Oh, oh. The dangerous enterprise of trying to argue with a reader’s perception of the story-that-is against the author’s perception of the what-the-story-was-meant-to-be.

    For me, then. For me, the story-the-ended-up-being was not about Dawn, but about Eliot. And Eliot’s eventual realization that Dawn’s first real communication had multiple interpretations conclusively drove that home.

    For me, Dawn is a weak point. Not necessarily a magical fool… but not a particularly good example of an autistic, either. Autistics I have met are not like Dawn–while they do struggle with things which are, when you describe them in words, not unlike what Dawn is struggling with… there’s something missing from Dawn’s experience. Anger. Envy. Sometimes absolutely puerile and despicable in its manifestation. Autistics as I have encountered them are excellent tragic heroes, very good at destroying everything meaningful in their lives in their desperate attempt to come to terms with it all. And, as I said, Dawn as I encountered her had none of that. She was too much of a passenger in her own life, and then a guide in Eliot’s; her struggles may be tragic, and heroic, but they are not tragically heroic. And so the story was not, in the end, about her.

    And so I sound like I am disappointed in the story. I am not–I liked “The Language of Moths” very much. So much so that I was gushing to everyone I met that day about how they needed to go read it… But I don’t think I like the “responding to the critic’s reactions to Dawn” tact that you’ve taken in the essay.

    Because that’s not really an essay about the story that I read.

  3. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    Thanks, Karen, I’m glad it worked for you.

    Jackie, I think your reading of the story is one that I have as well as the one I wrote about in the essay. But I don’t necessarily see the essay as a response to critics (though there is that embedded within it) so much as a statement of intent.

    Like I said, I don’t usually ever write about my stories for a variety of reasons. One reason is because I don’t want to direct readers how to read them. But if I’ve been asked to write about it, the only thing I feel I can talk about authoritatively is the intentions I had in writing it, the lens through which I view it, despite whether it’s read that way by the public or not.

    As a side note, I created Dawn’s character from two sources: narratives about and by autistics, and from my experiences babysitting an autistic boy some years ago. I recognize the encounters you describe having with autistics most definitely, but they do have a variety of personality manifestations, and the boy I watched was really hard to keep up with but ultimately a really gentle soul. I decided to portray Dawn more like him because I think we see the tragic hero image of them more often.

    I’m *really* glad you liked the story enough to gush about it to everyone you saw that day. That is so awesome. 🙂

  4. Jackie M. Avatar
    Jackie M.

    But if I’ve been asked to write about it, the only thing I feel I can talk about authoritatively is the intentions I had in writing it

    Sure. But the essay in its current form does come across as arguing with the reader. While you do start out with the phrase “I find it interesting that….”, you then basically set out to prove, point by point, that people who are reading it that way shouldn’t be. And it’s one thing to say you never intended Dawn to be read as magical and isn’t that interesting that people do and what does that say about how people regard autistics and savants in real life? and another to state that the reader has misunderstood the story quite completely. I’m extremely interested to hear what you were thinking about Dawn when you created her; however, reading that you feel that many/most readers have “misunderstood” the character puts a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. And is this essay going to appear in right before the story?

    Even more dangerous is your assertion that the story was meant to be rather more downbeat in its resolution. Again, the essay is using language like “easy to miss/misunderstand.” Add in the fact that it was that final note of hope that triggered my gushing instincts… Okay, so, my reading of the “The Language of Moths”? Was as the story of the summer when Dawn and Eliot both found the first inklings of the things they were going to need to have as adults if they were going to have any chance whatsoever at happiness.

    Feel free to disillusion me, dear author, but you do so at your own peril.

    Is it possible to tone down the level of engagement with the reviewers here? Maybe use the exact same content (because it is dreadfully interesting) but go for a more documentary-style angle?

    (Well, I’m just glad you didn’t just tell me to shove off! It’s not often that one has the opportunity to read the blurb in front of the Best-Of story, then hop online and start arguing with the author in real time.)

  5. Christopher Barzak Avatar
    Christopher Barzak

    No, I think you’re right, Jackie. The “miss/misunderstand” words add a dimension that sets it up too response-like, rather than the documentary style that I think I was trying for, particular towards the end. I think I’ll tweak the language a bit here and there to correct that. Thanks for your honesty. I would never tell anyone to shove off. 🙂 Especially when they’re offering honest and sincere feedback. The essay will appear in The Bulletin for the Nebula Award. It won’t be printed in an anthology or anything largely distributed like that, though.

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