Called "fascinating" by the New York Times upon its first publication in 1984, Native Tongue won wide critical praise and cult status, and has often been compared to the futurist fiction of Margaret Atwood. Set in the twenty-second century, the novel tells of a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights and banned from public life. Earth's wealth depends on interplanetary commerce with alien races, and linguists a small, clannish group of families have become the ruling elite by controlling all interplanetary communication. Their women are used to breed perfect translators for all the galaxies' languages.
Nazareth Chornyak, the most talented linguist of the family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for trade organizations, supervising the children's language education, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth comes to discover is that a slow revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them from men's control.
So what Elgin does with these two books is to help us understand the role that language can play in both oppression and revolution. One of the very small ways I've experienced that is my frustration that our current language has only one word for the verb "to know." Due to the patriarchal nature of our culture, Women's Ways of Knowing have been ignored or discounted. I remember what an earth-shattering event it was for me to read that book as an adult and begin the process of reclaiming all that I "knew."
The third book in the trilogy, Earth song, takes off in a different direction. I don't know that I would recommend the book itself, the plot is disjointed and difficult to follow. But the message of this one is really powerful and has stayed with me the longest.
The story begins when the women accidentally discover that they have found a cure for hunger...music. They spend hours and hours talking about what to do with this discovery. They know that if they go public with this knowledge, the "powers that be" will find a way to control and distribute music much the way they do with food, and people will continue to go hungry. So they develop a strategy that is bold, subversive and courageous. They decide to apprentice themselves out as music teachers all over the galaxy. You may wonder why I call this strategy courageous. That is because they know, when they adopt it, that none of them will live to see the end of hunger. It will be generations before that happens. But they also know that this is the only way to ensure that the music belongs to the people.
I've thought so often about this story. The courage and patience and hope of it all. And then I'm reminded of the words of Ruben Alvez:
What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and to resurrection.
"But, hope must live with suffering. Suffering, without hope, produces resentment and despair. And hope, without suffering, creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness. So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.
"This is the secret of discipline. Such disciplined love is what has given saints, revolutionaries, and martyrs the courage to die for the future they envision; they make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.
And I'm reminded of this story told by Margaret Wheatly:
Yitzhak Perlman, the great violinist, was playing in New York. Yitzhak Perlman was crippled by polio as a young child, so the bottom part of his body doesn't work well and he wears these very prominent leg braces and comes on in crutches, in a very painful, slow way, hauling himself across the stage. Then he sits down and, very carefully, unbuckles the leg braces and lays them down, puts down his crutches, and then picks up his violin. So, this night the audience had watched him slowly, painfully, walk across the stage; and he began to play. And, suddenly, there was a loud noise in the hall that signaled that one of his four strings on his violin had just snapped.
Everyone expected that they would be watching Yitzhak Perlman put back the leg braces, walk slowly across the stage, and find a new violin. But this is what happened. Yitzhak Perlman closed his eyes for a moment. Yitzhak Perlman paused. And then he signaled for the conductor to begin again. And he began from where they had left off. And here's the description of his playing, from Jack Riemer in the Houston Chronicle:
"He played with such passion, and such power, and such purity, as people had never heard before. Of course, everyone knew that it was impossible to play this symphonic work with three strings. I know that. You know that. But that night, Yitzhak Perlman did not know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awe-filed silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. Everyone was screaming and cheering and doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had just done. He smiled. He wiped the sweat from his brow. He raised his bow to us. And then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet and pensive and reverent tone,
"'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.'"