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An Interview with Suzette Haden Elgin
With Kim Wells


When I was an undergraduate, studying English at Western Washington University in Bellingham, I was required to take a course in Linguistics. At first I was a bit daunted, for, despite always having been very good at writing & reading (hence, the English major) I was scared of what I had heard about Linguistics. Didn't they, after all, make you study grammar and diagram sentences and stuff? My professor was great and I learned so much more about the English language than I ever thought I could. One day, while visiting her office, I saw a book that looked interesting. The book was called Native Tongue, by a linguist, and I borrowed it. Not only did it help me with my understanding of linguistics as a whole, it was a revelation for me as a woman and feminist. I borrowed the second book in the series, The Judas Rose and loved it, as well. Several years later, I found that Dr. Elgin had also published another book in the series, called Earthsong; of course I had to read that too. I tried to purchase the primer for the constructed language in the novels, thinking that maybe I could even work it out so that studying Láadan counted for my foreign language requirement in my Ph.D. program. Well, that didn't work out (see interview for more details on ordering the primer). Recently, when I discovered that Dr. Elgin had a website, I started writing to her for details on the books, and found that in Fall 2000, Feminist Press plans to re-release Native Tongue, which has, regretfully, gone out of print. The three books are currently only available from used book stores (unfortunately, since these sales don't "count" to mass market publishers and so, don't encourage new publication). To celebrate this coming release and hopeful resurgence in interest in this series, I asked Dr. Elgin for an interview. What happened was more of a discussion than a typical journalistic Q&A, we exchanged a series of emails and could probably, if time & other business didn't intrude, have gone on for a while. I think what we have here is much more than an interview; decide for yourself below, and read more about the books & Dr. Elgin. August 3, 1999
Photo by George Elgin, used with permission.

Suzette Haden Elgin's Home Page On this site you can: get "freebies" which include packets on Láadan; read essays by the author; find info about linguistics; read her tour schedule; etc. Make sure to check the biography page.

"Weather Bulletin" one of Haden-Elgin's stories published online.

Láadan an essay that discusses the creation and status of this created language specifically designed to express a "woman's way of knowing." 

More Láadan links
The Láadan Language (and Constructed Languages)
Láadan Language Reference Page
Notes on Adding to the Láadan Vocabulary
Láadan New Words Waiting for Approval
Láadan Core Words
English to Láadan Dictionary
Láadan to English Dictionary
Live Journal Láadan Community
Láadan at Wikipedia
FSF Wiki: Láadan Working Group
Láadan Vocabulary Update, June 2003
Láadan Made Easier: Lesson One
Excerpt from The Láadan Grammar & Dictionary: Second Edition
Another Plea for Quality Control
Láadan, the Constructed Language in Native Tongue
"Language Construction Kit 101"

Also, you can now view and order the wonderful art Prints of Suzette's Whimsical Drawings, at http://www.bysuzettehadenelgin.com  

In this short excerpt from the book Native Tongue, some text has been cut for brevity's sake. It is important text for the book as a whole, but to get the idea of what's happening in this early scene, what appears here is sufficient. Where text has been left out, there is a [. . . ] This excerpt is printed by permission of the author and The Feminist Press at The City University of New York. Copyright 1984 by Suzette Haden Elgin.

An excerpt:

"Nazareth is barren now," said Jason [. . .] "She's nearly forty years old, and she was no beauty even when she was young. What earthly need has she got for breasts? It's absurd. It's a non- issue. It wasn't worth five minutes, much less a meeting. I agree with Aaron-- I move we end this discussion, vote, and adjourn."

"And do what? Let her die?"

"Christ, Kenneth, that's a stupid thing to say!" [. . .] "there's plenty of money in the women's Individual Medical Accounts to cover all the treatment Nazareth needs. Who said anything about letting her die? We don't let women die, you moron."
[. . .]
"Perceive this. . . there is also plenty of money in the women's IMA's to pay for the breast regeneration. . . how do we explain that we're unwilling to authorize that small sum for the benefit of someone who's been so efficient and so sturdy and so productive a ‘receptacle'?"
[ . . .]
"What have they decided, Clara?"
"You're to have the surgery."
"Yes. But not the breast regeneration."
"Are the women's accounts so low as that?"
"No, Natha,-- it wasn't a financial decision."
"Ah . . . . I perceive." Nazareth's hands moved, one to each of her breasts, and she covered them tenderly, as a lover might have covered them against a chill wind.
[. . .]
Nazareth went out to the front of the house to wait for the robobus. She did not bother to get anything at all from the room she shared with Aaron. She did not touch her breasts again."

Qtd. from Native Tongue, pp. 12-21. 

The Interview

Editor's note: The BOLD text is Kim's question, the regular text is the answer from Haden-Elgin.

You begin your novel Native Tongue, with two important incidents that both set the stage for the rest of the work and, for me, incited anger and fear. The first, of course, is the repeal of the 19th amendment, allowing women the vote, and the introduction of an amendment declaring women officially weak, dependent and making it illegal for a woman to have any status other than what a male guardian allows. The second is the refusal of the linguist males to pay for the regeneration of an older woman's breasts following a mastectomy. My question, then, is where the nudge, the idea, for these two incidents came from and how are they related, in your mind, to each other?

The answer is complicated, especially by the need for me to switch back and forth between the early 1980s -- when I was writing Native Tongue -- and today, something I have to do if the answer is to make any sense. I'll try to make it comprehensible. Please keep in mind that when I say "men" and "women" below I am not claiming that what I say applies to all men and all women, not even when the obligatory explanation is made that I'm speaking only of men and women in the United States. There are of course exceptions in abundance. I'm talking about tendencies, and majorities, and the typical, and that should be remembered.

Let's start with the early 80s. One of the constant themes in some branches of feminism was the fear that women will be violently oppressed. That's a real and legitimate fear; women were (and still are) beaten and raped and maimed and killed every day in this world (as are children and weak men). Not to be afraid of such actions would be absurd. However, in the United States -- which is the only set of cultural environments I know well enough to speak or write about with any confidence -- I felt that the focus on that sort of overt violence was distracting women (and feminist men) from another sort of danger.

I was convinced that in the U.S. the danger wasn't the sort of militaristic extremist takeover that Margaret Atwood would write about In The Handmaid's Tale (which came out after Native Tongue did). Most men in the U.S. who were interested in subjugating women had better sense than to waste their time that way....in actions that were against the law (however badly the laws were enforced), that would bring unwanted public attention to what was happening, that were looked upon by most people as crude and unacceptable. No competent U.S. male was going to waste time and money and energy in such primitive displays -- not when a huge array of other measures for the purpose were available, all of them legal, all of them acceptable in the politest circles of society.

In writing Native Tongue I tried to set out a number of those measures for the reader. The incidents that you mention in your question were examples. There are the legislative methods for subjugation and oppression, as in the two Constitutional changes; there are the medical methods, as in the denial of money for breast reconstruction. Those were far more effective methods-- and far more likely to be permanent methods -- for keeping women down than physical violence could ever be. With physical violence, there comes a day when the victims turn on the oppressors because there's nothing left to lose and nothing could be worse than the status quo; it can take many many years for that to happen, but it always does. The nonviolent methods are quite a different matter, and far more effective; much of the time, the victims don't even notice what's happening.

When Native Tongue came out, there wasn't much response to the medical incident, but many people found the legislative actions not just unlikely but "silly"; silly was the word most often used. "Things like that could never happen in the U.S.," they said. "It's silly. It's so far beyond believable that it wrecks the novel."

Well, now we are at the end of the 90s and I am here to say that I've been watching as the years have passed, and I've seen happening exactly the sorts of things that I hypothesized as future events in Native Tongue. (I'm not happy about my prophetic success; I would so much rather have been entirely wrong.) I've seen the growth of a whole industry of research into the alleged differences between female brains and male brains, with the female brains coming out on the low side of the scale every time; that would be a first essential step in a campaign to pass a law that declared women legally minors. First, you must prove their neurological inferiority; next, you link that to their behavior; finally, you pass legislation to "protect" the poor little things. I've seen endless examples of women allowing themselves to become the spokespersons and figureheads for projects that clearly are intended to promote and maintain the subjugation of women. I've seen endless examples of women getting medical care far inferior to that which is provided for men. I've watched a very clever campaign in which women have been convinced to rally around breast cancer as the ultimate women's disease, with ingenious distractions on the theme of "Look how much money you get for that, while prostate cancer is totally neglected!" -- while far more women die from heart disease, for which they are routinely given second-rate medical care. There was in the early 80s, and there still is in the late 90s, a highly-skilled-male technique of suckering articulate and talented women into position as the public exemplars of Potemkin Feminism projects of all kinds, which can be pointed to as proof that women are no longer being subjugated, suckering huge numbers of other women into rallying around the exemplars and taking part in the projects. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the men were and are quietly running things as always.

If Native Tongue had become a smash best-seller, some of what I was saying might -- in a just world -- have caught the attention of enough feminists of both genders to hold this process back a tad. I hoped that might happen; it didn't.

As someone who studies domestic culture, I love it that your language, Láadan, is passed, in part, through recipes . . . using the domestic as a subversive political force.

Thank you. There's a long history of that sort of thing -- the best known is the messages carried by women's quilts (both slave women and "free" women) in these United States, from the very beginning of our history. In the novel, using the recipes was a way of skillfully turning male oppression against itself. The tactic that men today (outside the novel, in the real world) would encourage -- and that women keep falling for -- would be women becoming activists about recipes, writing articles and books proving that they were "literature" rather than domestic devices, starting a "Domestic Studies" curriculum at universities, and so on; the men would give grant money for that kind of thing and provide publicity and funding for figurehead scholars in the field. That would bring the recipes out in the open, totally exposed to examination at all times. The linguist women in Native Tongue were paying attention, however. They did not allow themselves to be distracted from the truth: that encouraging men to believe that recipes are just a trivial pastime of silly women provides those women with a safe medium for transmitting information -- a medium that men would never check up on, even when examples are lying about in plain sight.

Can you tell us more about the way the women in the stories "change" as a result of their new language?

The women were released from the constant tension and frustration that comes of not having words for the things you want to say, and of not being listened to when you try to talk about those things anyway; they were spared the suffering that comes of deciding that talking about those things is utterly impossible and giving up trying. Think of foot-binding. It's easy to list the restrictions foot-binding places on a woman and to understand what removing those restrictions would mean. An inadequate language (one of the hypotheses in Native Tongue) imposes less obvious but equally repressive constraints; it could be called tongue-binding. The Láadan language removed those constraints.

Have you noticed any "real" change in women who have studied/created the language for your Láadan primer?

No. But the answer is meaningless. The language has been "out there" since 1984, and in all these years I've been contacted about it by perhaps twenty-five or thirty women...certainly no more than fifty. (I've heard from far more men, much to my dismay, than from women.) By and large, women haven't been interested. My experimenter-bias was a hope that, by the end of the ten years I was allotting to it, one of two things would happen. (1) Women would embrace and support and nurture Láadan -- in the way that hordes of people have embraced and supported and nurtured Klingon, for example. (2) Women would look at Láadan, say that it didn't come anywhere near doing the job of expressing their perceptions, and they would then construct an alternative women's language of their own devising. Neither of those things happened. The conclusion that the male scientific paradigm would draw from this result is that it proves definitively that existing human languages are adequate to express women's perceptions -- at least the perceptions of women who can read English. I'm well enough trained to know that that is the conclusion dictated by the principle of economy; I'm also experienced enough to know that the principle of economy doesn't always apply in the real world.

While I'm here, you'd have to define for me what you mean by "real" change.... As it happens, I've seen no change either "real" or whatever you would propose as its opposite. But Native Tongue was a scientific experiment as well as a novel, with controls (like the ten-year limit on its duration) as rigorous as I could make them. I have almost no data, and that means that any conclusions I might come to would have no value other than as opinions.

One of the things that our group of writers on the site's listserv has been discussing is the "gap" that has appeared in feminism as a "group" between "second wave" and "third wave" feminists. We have discussed the way that young feminists are dis-satisfied with current definitions and practices of feminism and with the "movement" in general but are still committed to the goals of equal pay for equal work, freedom of choice, etc.. We have also discussed the way our disaffection from the old terms of feminism and liberation sometimes gets used (to our dismay) as a tool for taking back some of the "gains," as in the way the drive for sexual harassment laws can be used frivolously in a way that weakens all claims. We also have considered the fact that some things we believe, as in that it's wrong for separate gender classes of either sex, that access to learning must really be equal (something feminism taught us) can be used against folks like Mary Daly, who has done wonders for feminine understanding of patriarchal religion, and we, as a group, take a step back again when she is "un-tenured". But we still cannot feel comfortable with the fact that she excludes people from her classroom because of their gender, so some of us have a hard time supporting her because in her drive to create a feminine discussion, she has done the same thing others did in the past to exclude women.

I understand. I've been there. There is no form of radicalism (by which I mean a determination to bring about real change) that does not eventually involve paradox -- like believing that women are entitled to a learningspace free from the male presence that for historical reasons inhibits their learning, while at the same time believing that any exclusion based on gender is elitist and unacceptable. Paradoxes are the most valuable diagnostic tools available to us for finding out where the weak spots in our beliefs are and making them stronger -- but only if we have the courage to work our way through them, no matter how painful that process may be. "Working our way through them" means finding out what the two (or more) parts of the paradox have in common and using that commonality to craft a new belief that is free of paradox.

What I know I personally feel is that, like the younger women in the linguist groups of your novels, I have a new language for things that older feminists had to make up as they went along. "Second wave" feminism gave us the terms for our liberation, but now we have to figure out what those terms mean in the light of the new world that has been created. Early feminism said "it's our body, we have a right to be sexual and powerful as well as being a mother and wife" and now we say "how do we do both, or neither, without also being exploited by both our needs and the established order of things?" I think we're trying to create a language, or a place, between a real world of woman with truly equal rights and women who were trapped away from true expression of themselves behind tradition and roles. Still, we don't want to fully abandon those roles either; which is why I think we have discovered our liking of the domestic as political.

I think that what I hear you saying is that women today want to be absolutely free to choose -- including making their choice for precisely the roles that the first and second wave feminists worked so hard to liberate women from. The third wave feminists want to be as free to devote themselves to being wives and/or mothers -- or family-focused spinsters -- or skilled servants -- as they are to devote themselves to being physicists or athletes or members of Congress. They want to be absolutely free to choose any role from the vast array of human roles, to devote themselves to it and succeed or fail according to their abilities and their circumstances. They don't want to be looked down upon or made to feel that they're traitors to feminism when their choices could -- in the "dialect" of early feminism -- be looked upon as going back into subjugation; they want to be trusted to fill any role of their choice -- any role whatsoever -- as a free human being and in full accordance with feminist principles and beliefs.

There's an excellent example for working with this dilemma -- the task of making the coffee for a group. For first wave feminists that task was an emblem of subjugation; it was woman's work and no man would lift a hand to do it; therefore, an act essential to their feminism was flatly refusing to do it. Second wave feminists could successfully insist that the task be shared, with both men and women doing it; an act essential to their feminism was making certain that women didn't end up taking more turns at the task than men did, and that men didn't get away with doing it badly while women were expected to do it well. Third wave feminists -- if I understand you correctly -- want to be able to be the one who always makes the coffee, or the one who sometimes or never makes the coffee, if and only if that happens to be their genuine preference, without getting guilt-tripped about it.

I read that the Chinese character for woman is literally translated as "person behind a door." Feminism of the past has looked for ways to point out that we are behind doors, as well as ways of smashing those doors; we today know the door is there, we can walk through the places already broken, but don't know what to do now that we're out here or how to break the rest of the door; in fact, we're not even sure we should smash the whole door. It doesn't feel right to do the same things the door smashers did, and the old words about our oppression don't mean quite the same because we know the door is there now; but breaking it in doesn't seem to work either. So what the question that I'm asking is, what do you, as a person who fought to break those initial doors/barriers against women think we should do now? You have a perspective of having seen the changes take place, in your own life, while we are here with changes (at least partially) in place, trying to figure out where to go from here. Perhaps instead of trying to recreate new lessons, and try to define ourselves against you in the old "son must slay the father" mode, we can work with you to create a place where our daughters and sons know who they are and where to go without fighting each other. What do you suggest?

Three things, none of which is likely to meet with wild popular acclaim.

First, I suggest that feminism has to do the work necessary to redefine its terms and clean out the clutter it has accumulated over time. Feminists tell me there are too many crises, that they can't afford to take the time to do this, that they can't spare the resources to do this, and so on. The problem with that stance is that everything continues to grow more and more muddy and contradictory and slapdash, so that feminism now risks losing almost the entire population of young women. Nothing is going to be accomplished if that happens. In the Native Tongue series I tried to explain, over and over again, that planning for radical change has to be done within the framework of decades at least, and more likely centuries. The cultural patterns humankind has built up over millennia can't be changed quickly, because they are dynamic patterns; it's not possible to change one thing in isolation from all the other things. Computers help; they're letting us have this dialogue, for example, and they would let us set up models the way models are set up for weather, to help us compress time and explore possibilities. But someone has to program the computers, and that preparatory work simply cannot be done in a hurry.

Second, I suggest that women have to grow up. They have to stop being suckers for everything that's flung at them (including, I hasten to say, anything that I might fling at them). It has to stop being so easy for men to manipulate them and distract them and set them to fighting among themselves and send them out into the streets marching and speechifying for causes instead of doing the real -- and almost never glamorous -- work that would actually move those causes forward. They have to stop lying, to themselves and to each other; for example, they have to admit that they keep buying into the cultural ideals about female appearance and find out why they do that and figure out a way to stop doing it -- or they have to specify that the Beauty Queen (or whatever) role is one they freely choose to fill, and explain why that is consistent with feminism, and get on with it.

Third, feminists have to stop excluding so much of the community of women and then reacting with shock when those excluded women answer "no" to "Are you a feminist?" For example, third wave feminists can't go on excluding and ignoring old women; they can't go on excluding disabled women; they can't go on excluding poor women, either on or off welfare; they can't go on excluding rural women. They would do well to take a look at the model being established by women in country music; they could learn a tremendous amount there. OR, alternatively -- feminists must stand up and speak the truth and say straight out that their definition of a feminist is a well-dressed, healthy and fit, well-educated woman with money enough to pay her bills and sophistication enough not to be an embarrassment when you take her somewhere. One or the other.

When are the first two books going to be reissued by Feminist Press?

So far as I know, the Feminist Press will only be bringing out the first book -- Native Tongue. They plan it for the Spring of 2000. (Note: Since our interview in 1999, all of the books are more readily available. See the links to the page's right).

And is the Láadan primer is available anywhere? (I tried to order it and never heard from any of the sources I found, including online bookstores who say that you can get it from them).

You see what I mean. I suppose every literate person in the industrialized world would know how to get a copy of the Klingon grammar. The Láadan grammar has been available without interruption since March 1988. It's called A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan: Second Edition, and has been available all these years either directly from me or from its publishers --

Box 1624
Madison, WI 53701-1624.

(Note: The first edition came out even earlier, but had a severe case of Unknown Language Typographical Erroritis; it's been out of print a long time.) From the beginning, I've had available for purchase a cassette tape to go with the grammar and dictionary, as well as a videotape that discussed the creation of the language for the novel and related topics.

In all these years, although I've done hundreds of interviews and radio spots and TV appearances and so on, only one reporter from the mass media has ever asked me a question about Láadan -- and her editor wouldn't let her write the story. You might think there'd be interest in "the first language constructed by a linguist and designed to express the perceptions of women," or "the first artificial language constructed by a woman since Hildegard of Bingen's" or some such thing; there hasn't been. This is a CLUE, you perceive. Klingon, a language of war designed to express the perceptions of warriors -- the doing-battle kind of warriors -- has been wildly popular. It has its own journal, supported by an American university. Láadan, a language of harmony designed to express the perceptions of women, has been largely ignored. There may be another and better such language (or many others), languages
that express women's perceptions; if they exist, and I don't know anything about them, nor do you, that is also a clue.

I wonder if there isn't quiet interest; perhaps not the commercial success of things like Klingon but something that might be less "faddish" and more lasting.

If you're right, and there really is quiet interest, those who are interested might want to think about taking advantage of what I know about the language while I'm still available to them. I'm sixty-three; I will not live forever.

I think one of the reasons why your novel didn't become a bestseller that inspired women to learn Láadan is that it's billed as Science Fiction. My first TA experience was in a course on Sci Fi and most of the women in the class complained that they never watched Sci Fi and didn't like it, (at first at least). Some of them, after taking the course, learned to like it, some never did. But so many women dislike the genre and so might not try to read something in it, as well as the fact that since most Sci Fi is about war and space travel, and most of the audience is male, that the book just didn't get the word of mouth attention that other books do.

This is the only thing in your questions that shocked or surprised me. It's obvious that "women," (and I know that you're saying "many women" or "most women," not "all women," just as I have been) don't know what's been happening in science fiction. That is the result of a multitude of factors, not all of which are under the control of writers..... I think we have to set this aside, or the discussion will turn into a full-length book, and neither of us has time for that. I will just sum up, then, with two brief statements. (1) Women need to realize that SF is the only genre of literature in which it's possible for a writer to explore the question of what this world would be like if you could get rid of [X], where [X] is filled in with any of the multitude of real world facts that constrain and oppress women. Women need to treasure and support science fiction. (2) Much of the best science fiction is now being written by women, whose novels are light years beyond the "war and space travel" scripts you're referring to. Women need to treasure and support science fiction.

I would like to mention Earthsong, partly because it is the one that is most easily available for purchase now but partly because I do think it's the most intriguing of the books and it's good to see the progression through the three texts. I thought that the interview being mostly about the first book could do some introduction to the books for those who haven't found it yet and maybe start a new trend towards reading it. I wonder one thing: do you think that in the last book, where the Alien Intelligences leave humans stranded because they are sort of a "plague" planet, infected with violence, that the introduction of Láadan finally into the public arena, into the awareness of men, might save them?

Not based on Earthsong, Kim. In Earthsong the women of the Lines acknowledge, with much sorrow, that their attempt to move Láadan beyond the Lines failed dismally. This reflects what happened in the real world, you perceive; women did not welcome and nurture the language either in the novel or outside the novel. If I had wanted to do so I could have formed a group of women linguists and we could have had a wonderful time with the language; they (and I) would have enjoyed it. But that was impossible because it would have introduced a wild variable -- me, as active promoter -- into the scientific experiment I was doing; that's not the way languages live or die in the real world. There was a tiny group of women who interacted with me for a while, and who still contact me about Láadan from time to time and use it in their classes and so on; just as in the novels, that's as far as it goes.

In some other book, where the language swept the world and men learned it and a whole different set of fictional events took place, what would happen? It would bring about change, by definition. Whether it would save anyone, I can't say. I'd have to write the book -- which would have to be science fiction -- and explore the question.

Will the aliens return when women are finally "out of the pantry/closet?" And will it matter, now that women have found a way to exist without them? Do you have another book out there where the aliens return, or is that one, perhaps, to be written by someone else in the future?

I can't write a new science fiction novel right now because I make my living writing and that means I would have to have the sort of book advance that is offered by the half dozen large commercial mass market publishers. They're going through a stage at the moment in which the work of midlist novelists -- which includes, almost by definition, feminist science fiction novelists -- is nearly impossible to publish. It's ironic that this is in many ways something that has grown out of feminism itself.

When I talk about this at conferences, people in the audience say, "But how can that be? EVERYbody has read Native Tongue!" That's the problem. Publishers don't count readers; they count copies sold -- new copies sold. Ten thousand people reading a used or borrowed copy don't count; one person buying and reading one new copy counts. It's another paradox of feminism. Women (and feminist men) felt that it was consistent with the ideals of feminism to put feminist SF novels on reserve in libraries for their students, to share copies and pass them along to friends, to buy used copies, to photocopy the novels and share the photocopies....all those warm and fuzzy things. It was consistent, yes, with feminist ideals. But we aren't living in a feminist world. What that did was put feminist science fiction in serious danger, with the exception of superstars like Le Guin (and now, Mary Doria Russell.)

This situation may change. We can hope. When it does, if I'm still here, I'll write another novel.

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