‘She’ as a literary technique in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series

I need to write and revise this quickly because I just realized that my appertif was poured more strongly than I intended and I’m about to go downhill fast. I just wanted to make a short note about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ in Ann Leckie’s series beginning with Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Justice often gets pegged as social justice-y. In fact, one of the implications of the Puppies campaign for this year’s Hugo ballot stuffers is that the Ancillary series is only popular because of its social justice elements. While the plot is definitely anti-colonialist, my impression is that their real complaint is about the use of the pronoun ‘she’ for all genders. Anti-colonialism abounds in sci-fi, so in this case it’s the ‘she’ that stands out. These critics seem to think that Leckie is using ‘she’ for political or social reasons like one might use ‘womyn’ or ‘ze’. From folk who claim to love sci fi enough to participate in dramatic campaigns to change fandom, I expect more than that facile reading.

Leckie uses ‘she’ in order to force the reader to feel the same confusion that Breq, the protagonist, feels about the strange cultures that ‘she’ is visiting. It’s not so relevant in the second book, in which Breq is primarily surrounded by others of her own culture, but in Justice she is on a strange planet, among people she cannot trust. Throwing the reader into an unusual situation and expecting them to think like anthropologists is a classic sci fi technique. The Ancillary world is not that different from ours beyond space faring, and the parts that are significantly divergent, such as ship minds, are now practically sci fi tropes. A ship mind no longer makes us sci fi readers uncomfortable and confused in that pleasant way that we seek. Instead, to create this confusion, Leckie introduces a culture that does not use gender tells. Not only does this provide a challenge to the reader, the kind sci fi readers crave, but it helps the reader understand the distance that Breq, as an ancillary, feels when communicating with normal humans. It’s really clever and is pulled off smoothly and beautifully in the books.

Of course, calling everyone ‘he’ would not have this effect because there are hundreds of sci fi books that already use ‘he’ exclusively. In most cases, it’s not usually for any narrative purpose, it’s simply because the author is either lazy or has world-building priorities other than creating a realistically diverse set of characters. Those authors have slid by for a long time without anyone questioning if there were political reasons behind those choices.

Ancillary Sword, the sequel to Ancillary Justice, as I mentioned above, mostly features Radchaai, people of the same culture that Breq belongs to. ‘She’ no longer serves to demonstrate Breq’s confusion and discomfort. Instead, ‘she’ becomes normalized for the series’ reader… until it’s not. The book mentions both domestic abuse and rape. I found myself wondering what gender the involved characters were, despite it being not at all relevant to the plot in this case. This led me to question my own subconscious beliefs and assumptions. Why would it matter what gender they are? If Leckie thought it mattered, she would have made it clear. Thus, in this book, ‘she’ serves another classic sci-fi purpose: making the reader question their own subconscious judgements.

tldr: ‘she’ serves a literary and not necessarily social justice purpose in the Ancillary series. It’s in line with other classic sci fi techniques and tropes, which complement the pretty standard space opera elements in the novel. By ignoring this fact, puppies and other critics are politicizing their fiction in exactly the same way they accuse others of doing.

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Best Translated Book Award Link Roundup 2: The Longlist

Cover of Horses of God

Horses of God by Mahi Binebine, translated from the French by Lulu Norman (Morocco; Tin House)

“Poor Fuad, though, had no one to defend him; he had nothing but his legs.”


Cover of Blinding

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter (Romania; Archipelago Books)

“There were days when the only people I saw on the streets were blind.”


Cover of Textile

Textile by Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu (Israel; Feminist Press)

“It was not only avoiding thoughts of home that helped the good sniper to carry out his mission…”


Cover of Sleet

Sleet by Stig Dagerman, translated from the Swedish by Steven Hartman (Sweden; David R. Godine)

“When you’re the child of a small family farmer your back grows crooked already at an early age from you trying to bear as much on it as the grown-ups. “


cover of story of a new name

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy; Europa Editions)

“It was hot, I opened the window. I listened to the chickens pecking, the rustle of the reeds, then I became aware of the mosquitoes. I closed the window quickly and spent at least an hour going after them and crushing them with one of the books that Professor Galiani had lent me, Complete Plays,by a writer named Samuel Beckett.”


Cover of Tirza

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

“Button it,” Hofmeester said, “your shirt. I can see everything. I don’t want to see everything. I’ve seen too much as it is.” Ibi was standing at the door, her upper body swaying rhythmically back and forth. She was crying without a sound.

The tenant buttoned his shirt, all the way to the top.”


Her Not All Her Cover

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Austria; Sylph Editions)

“From the art of poetry war has arisen: People were bored by what they knew but they didn’t want to ask anything either. They wanted to answer right off. But there’s one thing they know for certain: Always conquer new ground! “


Cover of My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love

My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway; Archipelago Books)

“‘We’re going to stay a bit longer,’ Linda said. ‘And look, now you’re all getting some goodies!’Was she was referring to the vegetables on the board?

She had to be.

They were crazy in this country.”


Seiobo There Below Cover

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary; New Directions)

“…and you should not come back if tomorrow, or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that — breathe your last.”

I think this is surely the most reviewed book of the bunch. I would have guessed My Struggle.


Cover of Autobiography of  a corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (Ukraine; NYRB)

“An old Indian folktale tells of a man forced to shoulder a corpse night after night—till the corpse, its dead but moving lips pressed to his ear, has finished telling the story of its long-finished life.”


Book cover featuring ink drawing of paper scrolls

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor (Argentina; New Vessel Press)

“This is where everything begins to be flattened by the gusting wind of time. People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current.”


Book cover showing a close up of a man's dress shirt

The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain; Random House)

“But why do I say “too late,” I wonder, too late for what? I have no idea, to be honest. It’s just that when someone dies, we always think it’s too late for anything, or indeed everything — certainly too late to go on waiting for him — and we write him off as another casualty. It’s the same with those closest to us, although we find their deaths much harder to accept and we mourn them, and their image accompanies us in our mind both when we’re out and about and when we’re at home, even though for a long time we believe that we will never get accustomed to their absence. From the start, though, we know — from the moment they die — that we can no longer count on them, not even for the most petty thing, for a trivial phone call or a banal question (“Did I leave my car keys there?” “What time did the kids get out of school today?”), that we can count on them for nothing. And nothing means nothing.”

If Sieobo There Below is the most reviewed, this might be reviewed by the most diverse set of publications.


Cover showing a red and yellow pattern

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters (Japan; Other Press)

“A miracle happened to me two years ago.”


Cover showing a strange blue 3-d shape and a man walking along it

In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Spain; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It’s strange how much trouble I’m having finding reviews and information about this book, considering it was published by one of the big five and you would think they would have marketing skills and budget. Maybe it’s just too large for reviewers to get to in time.


Book cover showing an owl eating a frog

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray (Guatemala; Yale University Press)


Book cover showing a black diamond on a white background

Through the Night by Stig Sæterbakken, translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (Norway; Dalkey Archive)

“I looked at her, the lovely renewed Eva. The just right level of tipsy Eva. The slightly nonchalant, amenable Eva. Whenever I dreamed of her, she was wearing the red dress she’d had on the first time we went out, to that Chinese restaurant. Yes, I think the two of us will always be together, I thought. What else could we possibly want?”


Book cover showing a gray background with black geometric lines embossed on top

Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot, translated from the French by Christine Schwartz Hartley & Anna Moschovakis (France; Ugly Duckling Presse)

“This corner of myself judged you, measured you; and in judging and measuring you I saw your weaknesses, your insufficiencies; where is the harm in my staying, in my accepting these insufficiencies, in my loving them? O, Man! You always want to be admired. You do not judge, you do not measure the woman you love. You are there, you take her; you take your happiness, she seems not to belong to herself anymore, to have lost all sense of anything; you are happy.”


Blue book cover

Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (Lebanon; New York University Press)

“‘The Arabs have set the standard for both orientation and osculation, for to kiss the brow, as the Franks do, is meaningless. But why is the kissing of parts other than the mouth and the cheek devoid of the pleasure that the kisser experiences at those two spots?’ ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘one who is thirsty cannot quench his thirst by planting his mouth at the top of the water pitcher or on its side.’”


Book cover featuring the name Sjon in bold letters

The Whispering Muse by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Iceland; FSG)

“So clattering crockery and clinking cutlery formed my lullaby on my first ‘night’ as a guest on board the flagship of my benefactor, Mr. Magnus Jung-Olsen.”


Cover with strange painting

The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (Netherlands; Pushkin Press)


Book cover featuring a grid with soviet, nazi, and jewish symbols

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Czech Republic; Portobello Books)


Book cover that shows the title growing like vines

The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Spain; McSweeney’s)

“Why doesn’t anybody tell us that we are not always the same, that it takes time for us to become who we are?”


Book cover showing the back of a man's head

Red Grass by Boris Vian, translated from the French by Paul Knobloch (France; Tam Tam Books)


Book cover showing two photographs of Los Angeles

City of Angels, or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud by Christa Wolf, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Germany; FSG)

“Very softly, and quickly repressed again, the question came to mind: What had actually made me come here?—just loud enough for me to recognize it the next time it announced itself, already more urgent than before. In any case, the scaly trunks of the palm trees glided by as though they were reason enough. The smell of gas and exhaust. A long drive.”


Cover of Sandalwood Death

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (China; University of Oklahoma Press)

” If a dog grunts, it is still a dog, and when a pig barks, it remains a pig. And a dieh is still a dieh, even if he does not act like one. Grunt grunt, arf arf. The noise drove me crazy. They knew they would be dead soon. So would my dieh.”

Best Translated Book Awards Link Roundup 1

The readers for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award will begin making decisions soon. It’s time to quickly read any front runners that you want to argue about and join the betting pools!

This post will be a link roundup for discussion about the 2014 BTBA. Please let me know any links I missed in the comments. Once the longlist is posted, I will update with reviews and more information about each of the contenders.

BTBA 2014 site
Contains posts from the readers riffing on different nominees.

The Mookse and the Gripes BTBA discussion forum

Database of all 2013 translations (xlsx file)

Clues so far:

Speculation and Lists:

Chad Post’s personal predictions

The Mookse and Gripes’ predictions (and more scattered about the forums)

The Complete Review looks ahead to potential competitors (from May 2013)

Writers No One Reads 2013 preview (part 1)

Writers No One Reads 2013 preview (part 2)

Potential Long-listers

 

National Book Awards

Sorry to interrupt VeganMofo, but the National Book Awards longlist was published yesterday. Usually I am completely unaware of most of the books on the list because I read more foreign fiction, but this time I’ve not only read but also reviewed two of them, The Flamethrowers and Pacific. You can follow those links to my reviews and check out the entire fiction longlist below. The best place for literary award discussion and betting is the forum at The Mooske and the Gripes.

  • Pacific — Tom Drury
  • The End of the Point — Elizabeth Graver
  • The Flamethrowers — Rachel Kushner
  • The Lowland — Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — Anthony Marra
  • The Good Lord Bird — James McBride
  • Someone — Alice McDermott
  • Bleeding Edge — Thomas Pynchon
  • Tenth of December — George Saunders
  • Fools — Joan Silber