Throwback Thursday: Native Tongue

Book cover: Native Tongue - Suzanne Haden Elgin (a woman with her mouth taped closed)It is 200 years since women were stripped of their adult status and civil rights. Now men rule a repressive world, but humanity is thriving as it reaches out to the stars. One group of women plan to rebalance the status quo a word at a time…

Suzette Haden Elgin’s dystopian novel Native Tongue shares a lot of context with The Handmaid’s Tale, which it predates by a year. Like Atwood, Elgin predicts a backlash against the emancipation of women; she has US lawmakers introduce a 19th Amendment in 1991, stripping women of their civil rights and ‘liberating’ them from the ’burdens’ of work and financial independence. 200 years later, young boys can barely believe that there was a time when women sat in government and on the judiciary; the only women who work now are nurses and linguists.

Out in space, humanity has discovered we are far from alone. Since first contact, there has been ceaseless demand for translators to facilitate trade deals; in part, because learning alien languages is hard, and in part because language skills are monopolised by 13 families known as the Lines (or Lingos). Every child of a Line is ‘Interfaced’ with an alien as a baby, learning its language as a native tongue. They are put to work at a tender age: the demand for translators is such that both women and children are acceptable if they speak the alien tongue required; and the government pay a high price in returns for their services.

Although their women and children are central to their business, the men of the Lines are as as misogynistic as the rest of America: the novel opens with a group of men discussing whether one of their women should be allowed to spend her own money on healthcare. There’s no quibble about paying for her life-saving cancer treatment – they’re not monsters, they assure themselves – but spending money on reconstructive surgery for a woman nearly past child-bearing years is considered absurd; a conspicuous display of their obscene wealth. Nazareth herself gets no input: it’s may be her money and her body, but she’s only a woman. She can’t be trusted with such decisions.

In spite of its bold synopsis suggesting a focus on the female linguists’ attempt to undermine the patriarchy, Native Tongue is largely an almost satirical slice of dystopian life. The narrative alternates scenes from Nazareth’s life, her father Thomas’s activities as head of all the Houses of the Lines, a dubious government project to try and replace the hated Lingos, and the simmering revenge of a nurse with a fierce hatred of all linguists. The various strands amply illustrate how unpleasant life is for a woman in 23rd century America (even compared to 1984, natch), but often lose sight of the ‘secret language’ plot for long periods.

The result is an odd, slow-paced meander that I found rather dated. While Haden Elgin’s assumptions of robot cleaners and self-driving buses; networked computers and conference calls are surprisingly on point, the language she uses to describe them somehow conjures up devices with dials and clunky buttons. Combined with the attitudes on display, this 23rd century feels peculiarly like the 50s.

So does the US-centric assumption of the world. The novel never acknowledges the existence of human governments outside the US; and it never addresses why the Lines outside US borders have repressed their women in line with US legislation. 200 years on, why are we to assume that the US sets the agenda for the whole planet? There’s a brilliant scene in which an alien race sends a female trade delegation who the US are unwilling to negotiate with – women having no legal standing, no terms would be considered binding. It makes clear that other planets have egalitarian societies; but the rest of our planet… doesn’t really exist.

This cultural blind spot neatly encapsulates my last problem with Haden Elgin’s central thesis: the supposition of a universal female experience. Apparently I’m not supposed to consider cultural differences (in my own experience, just as critical as gender roles) – but the trans and nonbinary perspectives are also erased (although there’s a hint of lesbian attraction in the final act). Like the repeated assertion that the linguists’ wealth may not be spent, it all feels rather contrived.

It works better if I try to rationalise it as satire. If I accept the world-building as deliberately flimsy in order to frame absurdist narratives, both the (frankly horrifying) Government Works subplot and the male characters’ extreme attitudes make more sense – as does the conclusion, where the men get freaked out because their wives are being so perfectly nice to them and re-organise their society to more easily avoid them. It also opens the door to challenging the assertion that Haden Elgin was advocating for a segregated society.

Of course, you don’t have to think about it this hard. If you don’t kick the tyres on the world-building, the novel may work better – although those hoping for some well-deserved patriarchy-smashing will need to be patient. Native Tongue is the first book in a trilogy; the subversive Encoding Project only comes to the fore in the final chapters.

While it’s an easy enough read, I’m not tempted to continue the series. Or at least, I wasn’t until I started thinking of it as satire. Now I’m kinda tempted to see where that goes…