When I first started reading Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, I commented to a friend that I didn’t like the “linguistic trick” of using “she” for characters the narrator KNEW were male. The ambiguous gender of the narrator didn’t bother me. And the story was amazingly good, so I stuck with it.
As I continued to read, I started thinking about why the pronoun issue bothered me, and I came to realize that what I was feeling was probably the same thing women feel when they encounter words like “mankind” or the use of “he” in most literature, though of course I could close the book and not see that anymore. This, to me, was an important revelation. I’ve always sort of rankled when people got pissy about words like “mankind,” because to me it’s always been obvious that this means ALL humans, not just men. It’s right there in the definition, right? But when I really thought about it, I saw how privileged that was. As a male, I can say “Mankind means ALL people, not just men! Everyone knows women are in it, too!” and mean it–precisely because I’m male. It doesn’t take anything from me. And it occurred to me that if someone said “We don’t need to SHOW black people in the future, everyone knows they’re there,” I would think that person was a complete fucking idiot, and a racist dickbag, too. And then I had to face that even I, a supposed feminist, have some sexist ideas I needed to examine more.
Having realized all this about halfway into the novel, something snapped, and it didn’t bother me anymore. I’m not stupid enough to say that that’s it, I’m not full of sexist ideas anymore. But I am willing to say that I won’t be casually dismissing anyone who says “That was maybe sexist,” or ignore my own privilege. I’ve always been a staunch ally of women and People of Color, but I think sometimes I forgot that meant I had to examine my own attitudes as seriously as I looked at the attitudes of others, and that sexism doesn’t always mean “thinks women belong in the kitchen.”
This is, I believe, why we need diverse books, written by and about diverse people. Literature, and more specifically stories, have a way of getting past our defenses, the walls we build between us and the Other. Stories can force us to confront, even gently, our own views of the universe, our own distorted ways of thinking, better than a thousand arguments from others.
We all see the world from our own particular window, and none of us have exactly the same window. Mine shows me how the world looks from a relatively privileged place. But mine is not the same as the window of my friend Mike, who fled Cambodia at five years old, whose last sight of his grandfather’s home in Pnomh Penh was as it was hit by a mortar shell, and who has had to learn to fit in to white American culture. And my window is not the same as my sister’s. And it isn’t the same as my friend Brian, who has to deal with racism and homophobia both.
We need stories from authors from all over the world, from every race, from every group and social class, marginalized or not, to show us the view from their window. Because only by combining our views can we widen them.