Hey, cool, I hadn’t seen that this was available until today, but here is an audiobook version of my Nebula nominated novelette, The Language of Moths. I love the image they gave the story, and even better: if you go through the link above to the audible.com page for the book, you can hear the beginning of the story as a sample. Very fun to finally hear someone else read something I’ve written.
A friend wrote today to say, “I read your new book finally. It’s very wabi-sabi.” And more, of course. But if she’d said nothing else but that it was very wabi-sabi, I would have been elated. It’s the descriptor that I feel captures The Love We Share Without Knowing, and in a more American way, even One for Sorrow. I hadn’t come across the term before I moved to Japan in 2004. When I did encounter this word, though, and learned about its aesthetic system and meaning, it felt like I’d finally found a name for the way I look at the world, I think, which comes through, of course, in my stories.
One of the things I love about the internet is being able to access so many interviews, speeches, debates, lectures and articles by so many authors, artists and thinkers around the globe. When I recall life pre-internet, and how these items seemed further away and took more time and energy to seek out and find at times, it makes me more appreciative of this technological development that has become such a seemingly mundane tool for so many.
When I was seventeen or eighteen, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first African-American woman to win the prize. She was one of my favorite authors. I can say in hindsight that I did not always understand what was going on in her novels. I was just graduating high school, and her narrative technique was, admittedly, difficult for me. For some reason, I was attracted to a lot of difficult narratives (I read Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing the Cherry” the summer I turned seventeen, a decidedly non-linear novel, and read it several more times over the following two or three years until I felt I was beginning to understand it). Perhaps it was because I wanted to become a better reader, and in the same way we grow muscle is by tearing it apart, I was giving myself books of a certain weight level that forced me to get better at reading in different ways. In any case, one day while I was in a book store, I came across a cassette recording of Toni Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize and purchased it. I listened to it occasionally over the next couple of years, playing it for friends I would make in college who I thought might enjoy it, too, and might want to talk about it. I’m not sure what ever happened to that cassette, but Toni Morrison popped into my mind the other day as I was unpacking books (still unpacking!) and unearthed my collection of her novels. That Nobel speech was one of the first things I thought of afterward, and soon I was on the internet typing in search phrases, and found it once again, and listened to it once again, understanding things she said now that, at seventeen or eighteen or nineteen or twenty, slipped by me. She’s a remarkably intelligent person, an amazing writer, and a compelling speaker. (I heard her when she came to speak in Youngstown in 2003 as well).
So for anyone who thinks they, too, might enjoy it, you can listen to it here. It’s about thirty minutes long, but it doesn’t feel like it, at least not to me.
Thanks to the very sweet Vonday McIntyre and Diane Turnshek, the mini-essay I wrote for the Nebulas on “The Language of Moths” has been replaced with the final version I’d settled on after revision help from Jackie M, who has the most incredible pink hair (saw her at Wiscon this weekend and had a good chat by the elevators about class and race issues, she’s one smarty, that one).
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.
Lately I’ve doing some translation work for a Japanese publisher that is making a bilingual book on peace for teens, using Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and theory of how peace is established and maintained. So I’ve been reading Kant in English and Japanese to do this. I’d read a little of Kant previously but not enough, so it’s been an enlightening experience for me, as it seems everything connected to Japan has been for me.
I wish there were more recent books on peace published (if you know of any, please let me know what their titles are), especially ones that try to explain what it is and how it functions and what societies must do in order to maintain it, and why it’s important. This all seems like common sense, but apparently these days it has left the realm of common sense and has been placed in the category of “merely speculative” by our current administration. Reading through Kant, I see we’ve already failed at many of the tenets he observed are necessary in order to keep peace in the world. Such as the need for no debt to be accrued in relation to a nation’s international or foreign disputes. I think the U.S. must have passed by that stop sign a long time ago, according to what our congressmen and women have been saying for some time now. I still can’t believe how out of control this administration is and how it simply gives everyone the finger when the majority of the citizens of the country, which *is* the nation, has told it to stop. It’s no wonder why people feel so powerless and small these days.
Via Cory Doctorow at Boingboing, a non-verbal autistic woman presents us with a video at Youtube, in which she speaks her own language, using gestures and sounds we don’t readily recognize as language, and visual cues that aren’t recognized as “normal” communicative cues either. She then translates the first two sections with the aid of a text-to-speech computer program. It’s beautiful and awe-inspiring. In it she talks about the definitions of what is considered to be language and what is considered the non-responsive behavior of a person with autism, and compellingly relates the argument that until we are able to recognize the many shapes that humankind has, we will never have equality, nor truly see ourselves, as a species, for what we are.
I was caught up watching this video because my story “The Language of Moths” has within in it an autistic character who may be in communication with the world of nature around her, interacting with it in a way most people don’t recognize as language. I knew when I wrote this story there would be readers who would inherently dislike the story because it is a speculation on the very idea presented in this video, that perhaps what we are unable to recognize in the array of behaviors non-verbal autistic people display is an actual language, just one we don’t understand. This is a controversial idea in that we live in a culture that has socialized the idea that anything that departs from “normal” conventions of language and identity articulation, as well as a good many other aspects of being human, is a disorder. This allows us to believe that we actually have a centralized, unified definition of what is human, what is right, what is normal, and what is real. In a way, in our attempts to categorize the not-understood as a disorder, we are cutting ourselves off from various avenues of exploration to better comprehend the variations in people among us, and the environment in which we all live.
Food for thought, if nothing else, is a start.
And also, here is the video-maker’s own website.