Gender and China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’

KT author pic highresFiction writer, poet, essayist and literary critic, Kirsten Tranter, grew up in Sydney’s literary atmosphere and studied at the University of Sydney, but it was at New York’s Rutgers University that she completed her PhD in English on Renaissance poetry. Tranter’s first novel, The Legacy, was listed for the Miles Franklin in 2010. Her second novel, A Common Loss, is due to appear in January 2012. Today she chats with us about her essay ‘Refiguring fiction: Gender and China Miéville’s Embassytown’, featured in Overland 204.

Is the idea of simile and metaphor as powers that can ‘destroy and remake the very language’ of which the protagonist ‘is a piece’, itself a metaphor for the role of ‘writer’ as destroyer and creator of the world of ideas and ‘realities’ that shape society?

That’s certainly one aspect of the allegory that is suggested by the story. The scenes between Avice and the alien she teaches to speak (or to ‘unspeak’ as Miéville might say, since she makes it wreck its own sense of language in order to speak her own) dramatise very strongly what a struggle it can be to begin to see the world differently, though another’s eyes. It’s easy to read that as a metaphor for the writer’s own project, to present the reader with a new way of seeing things, encoded in language, and to ask the reader to join with that way of seeing things, even if it means abandoning, destroying or revising old ways, old traditions.

The political component in Miéville’s fiction-making is very clear, here. I think he’s saying, in order to remake the material world towards a more just and ethical vision of society, we need to also remake the language we have to describe it, and the stories through which we narrate it. He’s very interested in producing a sense of estrangement in his readers – you can see that in the way he’s so fond of neologisms and, somewhat paradoxically, in using obsolete, arcane words – he not only presents us with worlds that are unfamiliar but he also de-familiarises our own language and is always making us think about how words work.

You write: ‘But we are left wondering what might be possible if we called [violence, suffering, sacrifice] by their names, whatever those names might be in a new language that tried to account for the experience of Others …’ Is leaving the reader with this kind of wondering, writing that hasn’t quite reached its potential – or do you think Mieville has managed to achieve the ‘transformative’ power of language he, perhaps, was after?

This is a tough question, because I very much would have liked to have an ending to Embassytown that consciously invoked the kind of provisional sense of the possibilities and potentials of language that you’ve suggested. I don’t know whether the novel exactly elicits that ‘wondering’. Those questions about what might be possible are ones I’ve brought to it because of my own interest in sexual politics and they way they inhere in structures of representation – and because I’m used to seeing Miéville write about sexual politics in such different ways than he does in Embassytown.

I don’t want to detract from Miéville’s achievements as a writer who explores the transformative possibilities of language in more interesting ways than any just about any one else I can think of. His work is so rich in imagination, so allegorically dense, and I think he succeeds in crafting political fictions of extraordinary narrative and symbolic complexity, playfulness and artistic depth. I especially like the way in Embassytown he gestures so directly towards both the expressive limits and possibilities of language – the scene where Avice and Scile argue in bed over ‘the tragedy of language’, the way it can’t ever fully communicate experience, is perhaps my favourite moment in the novel. I like the idea very much that it is stories that acknowledge the limits of expressive possibility that allow us to appreciate just how much language can actually do.

EmbassytownBut the novel asks the reader to join in with, to believe in and go along with, a resolution that is achieved at what I consider to be great cost. The ending is predicated on the unacknowledged suffering and exploitation of a powerless girl. This is surprising to me because Miéville is certainly a writer who cares very deeply about exploitation and suffering, and usually wants to call to account in some way those who inflict and profit from the abuse of power. No doubt other readers will disagree with this interpretation of what happens to Avice. But I found it very troubling. Of course what happens to Avice is not mindless cruelty – it happens for a reason, and it is very much a kind of sacrifice for the greater good in the end. So why can’t it be named?

It’s interesting to me that Miéville’s so obsessed with finding words for everything – he delights in crafting new words to describe things we’ve never imagined before, or calling back into use words we’ve forgotten: he has what you might call a mania for elaborate description. But what happens to Avice is remarkable in the way it remains unspoken, undescribed, a lacuna. She tries and fails to find words and forms of narration that do justice to her own experience. I think it’s worth asking why that is the case. Why is this particular experience unspeakable and unnameable? I tend to think that to call it what it seems to be – violence, abuse, possibly rape – would undermine the resolution and harmony of the ending.

What was the catalyst for writing
Refiguring fiction?

The essay emerges from my academic interests in Renaissance literature and feminist rhetorical criticism. My PhD research focused on figurative language in Renaissance poetry, with a special interest in sexual politics and how they play out in figures like metaphor and simile. Again and again you see this trope at work in poetry and literature more generally, from Ovid through Dante, Donne, Marvell and Shakespeare, where the construction of metaphor is narrated as a story of rape or some kind of sexual sacrifice, a story that involves the violent transfer (to use the Latin word for metaphor) of one thing – an abstract idea – into the place of another.

The feminist critic Patricia Parker calls this ‘the metaphorical plot’. So when I read a story like Embassytown, where a woman is actually made into a Simile through an unnameable process of violent trauma, it’s very fascinating because it’s dramatising and making literal in a way what a lot of other literature only implies.

Gordon Teskey’s essay ‘Allegory, Materialism, Violence’ examines moments in allegorical literature – which he says is ‘concerned more than any other [genre] with the metaphorical implications of gender’ – when the symbolically violent process of making abstract meaning from matter is exposed, highlighting the usually-concealed conflict between form and meaning. ‘It is more broadly characteristic of allegory – though by no means more true of it – for this violence to be concealed so that the feminine figure embodies, with her whole body, the meaning that is imprinted in her without visible resistance,’ he argues. This is what we see in the figure of personification, for instance.

The violence of making meaning is very clear in Embassytown; this is, perhaps, the novel’s primary obsession – although the Hosts don’t recognize it as violence because they don’t see humans as thinking, feeling subjects. And then when they do come around to seeing humans differently, there seemed to me to be an opportunity to recognize that what they put Avice through, the meaning-making process, was in fact violence – this felt to me like a missed opportunity that could have deepened what the novel has to say about meaning, language, and the possibility of ethical communication. But I still value the novel very highly as a story that deals with these issues in such a fascinating way.

Where are you now, with your writing practice? What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished my second novel, titled A Common Loss. It’s coming out in January 2012. The story is set in a strange world but one that will be familiar to many readers, Las Vegas. It’s about friendship, primarily, and different kinds of betrayal. I’m starting work on another novel that probably also has an American setting. I lived there for a long time and I find that I imagine the place more strongly now that I’m away from it.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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  1. I had to look at the review of Embassytown again to check it really did seem to be saying what I thought it was saying: that the male author, creating a female narrating character, ought to be assessed according to certain ideas about representations of women. This kind of review smacks of reading through a haze of identity politics and a refusal to realise the necessary considerations employed by a writer of the calibre of Miéveille; the considerations of gender go deep and it is unthinkable that he was unaware of the option of providing explicit descriptions of the episode in question. The primary requirement of the novel is artistic and in this case it requires something alluded to, in its silence speaking of silence. Just look at the passage quoted here about hating Hasser turning his experience into a story.

  2. Can there be, according to this view, any valid feminist or political criticism of art? Is the aesthetic a domain that should be insulated from critique? If one of a novel’s artistic requirements is that a girl should be abused, and that her abuse should find no way of being authentically recognised or described except in terms of evasion,
    silence and denial, then I think it calls out for feminist critique. Perhaps on some level the novel itself critiques the politics of silence that it engages with. Inez, I believe that the author intended it to. But the extent to which it succeeds in doing that is an open question, one I think it is worth pursuing precisely because of this novel’s aesthetic brilliance and the political and literary complexity of this author’s work, which I admire so deeply.

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