Some Thoughts on Pronouns in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy

ancillary justice lauren saint-ongeMuch Internet ink has been spilled over Ann Leckie’s decision to not only write the Radchaai Empire as a society in which gender is not a conscious identity that the Radchaai understand themselves as having or are capable of identifying in others, but to use “she” as the pronoun that the Radchaai use to refer to everyone.

I’m in the middle of rereading the Imperial Radch trilogy, and a few days ago I finished reading the first book Ancillary Justice for the second time. As I was going through it, I realized there were at least two different ways to read the book given the use of “she” as the chosen pronoun, and with my two reads, I’d used a different way each time.

The first is to imagine that, since all the characters are called “she”, they are all female. This way reading the text has the benefit of forcing readers to read about a variety of characters— brave, scared soldiers, ruthless tyrants, stuck-up nobles, and arrogant, down-on-their-luck drug addicts—as female. In doing so, readers are then forced to grapple with the pervasive problem in all fiction of only writing women in specific ways or abiding by generic, reductive, and harmful tropes. If all the characters differ from each other such that they are individuals, and if every person in the Radchaai Empire is female, then readers are truly being treated to a fictional world in which women are as vast and varied and multitudinous as they are in real life. That’s not an unimportant way to read the text.

The second way to read the book with regards to pronouns is to read it with the author’s intention in mind, and choose to think of “she” as a truly neutral pronoun as opposed to a feminine one, meant to apply to everyone and anyone regardless of any kind of data seemingly meant to indicate a person’s gender.

For example, in the very first chapter the protagonist Breq first encounters a Radch named Seivarden face-down in the snow and in need of medical attention on the icy planet of Nilt. In asking for help from a nearby tavern, speaking to the Nilters in their own language, Breq has to refer to what the Nilters would perceive Seivarden’s gender to be—in this case, male. This means that now, whenever I read about Seivarden, I know that, according to Nilter conceptions of gender, they think of her has being male. And because I too was raised in a gendered society, I could all too easily slip into thinking of Seivarden as male for the rest of the series, pronoun usage and agender society aside, because I know that she in all likelihood has a “typically” male body (XY chromosomes, a penis, etc.).

However, what was more interesting, and ultimately more fulfilling for me, was to accept that Seivarden’s body was that of a “male” body, but that her pronoun was “she” anyway. Because the Radchaai don’t have an understanding of gender for themselves, there’s no need for them (or readers) to gender their bodies. There’s no need for me to gender Seivarden because A) she’s Radchaai and grew up with neither identifying with a gender or having one imposed on her and B) the Radchaai don’t gender bodies, so the fact that Seivarden in all likelihood has a penis and XY chromosomes doesn’t matter at all. Similarly with other Radchaai characters in the book, even though I never learned what any of their biological sexes were, it ceased to matter whether I subconsciously assigned them certain genders as I was reading. Because what I thought or assumed didn’t matter—they’re all agender characters regardless of anything I think or assume. Therefore, in the context of the Imperial Radch trilogy and the Radchaai Empire, “she” ceases to be a word that imposes gender, on anyone.

To sum it up, the second way of reading the book relating to pronouns proved to be a more fruitful experience for me than the first one for a very specific reason: using “she,” a typically feminine pronoun in English, as a gender-neutral pronoun in Radchaai, sets up some fundamental framework for imagining a world or a society where gender has no effect or influence on… well, anything. Not on bodies, physical characteristics, clothing, actions, behavior, mannerisms, not even words. “She” in this book is not like “she” in the English language because what the pronoun is does not matter. Ann Leckie could have picked any other pronoun system to use, such as singular “they” or Spivak pronouns, and her using those in lieu of “she” would have the same net meaning. (Ann Leckie has stated that she largely chose to use “she” rather than singular “they” or Spivak pronouns due to concerns over readability, and that she weighed the pros and cons of several options available to her before making a decision.)

I disagree with articles like this one which argues that using “she” misgenders and erases the existence of real-life non-binary people, specifically agender people. The whole point is that in this universe, “she” does not mean what it means in English. For the Radchaai, “she” is meant to be a un-gendered pronoun, and because “she” is applied to everyone indiscriminately, that is the status it achieves. Moreover, it’s more effective than if Ann Leckie had gone with “he,” mirroring The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.  “He” in English does have cultural assumptions as an acceptable default pronoun to describe people, regardless of their gender whereas “she” does not,  and therefore makes a greater impact when used indiscriminately.

I know that, from a leftist perspective, it’s problematic to say something like, “I want to live in a world where gender doesn’t exist!” because, leaving aside the fact that we live in a world that actively genders everyone to an absurd degree, the vast majority of people do actively identify as having a gender, and acknowledge their gender as having a meaningful impact on their lives, both positively and negatively. But Ancillary Justice goes and gives me passages like this one:

I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people. I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai—never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned, tied). Thick bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn’t need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.

Because so much of gender is arbitrary, I find the idea that we, as people, don’t have to assign a gender to anyone or anything immensely freeing. And while that’s not necessarily achievable for our world, nor is it something that many people desire—because gender and having a gender is inherent to how most people understand themselves individually and in relation to others—it nevertheless feels unequivocally validating to be able to read about an entire people where gender, quite literally, has no meaning and does not matter, and where the author demonstrates so using a common gendered pronoun that, in using it so consistently and thoroughly, renders it non-gendered.

(Artwork credited to Lauren Saint-Onge.)

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