Rose Lemberg lived in Ukraine, subarctic Russia, and Israel before relocating to Berkeley for her Ph.D. She is now living and teaching in the Midwest, where she finally became an immigrant in 2010. She is relieved to be a resident, rather than a nonresident, alien. Her poetry, prose and unclassifiables have appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Fantasy Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Goblin Fruit, and other venues. She edits Stone Telling with Shweta Narayan, and has recently edited The Moment of Change, an anthology of feminist poetry, for Aqueduct Press. Rose is currently querying her secondary world fantasy novel Bridgers, a tale of revolution and linguistics.
Rose's story "Kifli" appeared in Strange Horizons in 2010, and we've also published three of her poems. This year she took both the first and second place spots in the poetry category of our reader poll with "Between the Mountain and the Moon" and "The Three Immigrations". This interview was conducted by e-mail in April of 2013.
Julia Rios: I'd like to start out by asking you about language and linguistics–can you talk a bit about your background in this area, and how it affects your work?
Rose Lemberg: I am a linguist with graduate training from UC Berkeley. I started out in functional grammar and moved into sociolinguistics, a subfield which looks at how languages function in society. Sociolinguistics deals with such issues as language death, multilingualisms, how gender and sexuality are expressed through language, and how communities use linguistic means for cohesion and discord. You can see why it is such a vital subfield for me as an immigrant, as a multilingual, as a queer person and as an author working in complex, multicultural settings. I recently had a chance to ask my students whether they view language as a "primary component of identity," a phrase we’ve found in an article. Many said no. Yet, language is central to identity. For many monolinguals, especially those who speak the standard vernaculars, language is not something one notices in daily life, unless something shifts–for example, you move to a different country. For those of us who speak two or more languages, the constant back-and-forth foregrounds the importance of language to identity. Am I still the same person when I speak Russian? English? Hebrew? Yiddish? Do I switch from one language to another, and when? What are the contexts in which I speak these languages? Who are the people with whom I speak? Naturally these questions bleed over to fiction. I often feel my strongest work examines these tensions. (I am organizing a panel on Sociolinguistics in SFF for this year's Readercon–come one, come all!)
JR: In "The Three Immigrations" you write, "I made three languages / to hide in / Each within / the only land I've ever called my own / between the waters". There's an interesting contrast here between using language to hide, and using language to express yourself. How does this dynamic play out for you, both in this poem, and elsewhere?
RL: Ah. This is wonderful. We use language for communication, and language is often defined in terms of communication, but what about private languages? The three languages in the poem reference the three languages I constructed after my first immigration. They communicated nothing to anyone, they were just for me. I put together grammars and dictionaries and creation myths and stories after stories about the road of molten glass poured through the land, north to south, by lafë lakúa, the first strangers. We do not know what they were doing, and why they created this road. We know their greatest power was to leave.
The internal we, it is a powerful thing. To have one's worlds, and inside them people who do things you cannot understand, but who talk to you, who have their own lives, languages, cultures–it is a refuge and a strength in a tilting world. To have languages of one's own, to create meaning that is not about appeasing other humans, not about survival–it is to hide and also to safeguard the fragile self. In one of the three languages I was developing back then, Takiritalë, there was a special way-mode used only by those who walk the road of molten glass. In that mode there are no tenses, no singular/plural distinction, no genders. Time, space, and even the body are irrelevant to the experience of walking that road. I was fifteen when I began working on this, and I think it foreshadows a lot of what I am doing now. I wish there was more research into such private languages.
JR: One of the things you've been doing now, in fact, is working on a novel. Can you tell us a bit about that?
RL: Bridgers is the secondary world fantasy novel I am querying right now. Ulín is a linguist who lost her family, friends, and status when her brother destroyed her magic. Her work is everything to her. She travels to a faraway country to do some fieldwork and give a talk about her groundbreaking theory of language unity. She meets Laska, a menial worker and revolutionary who shares new data that shatter Ulín's conviction in her theory. Soon after, under the cover of a commoners' uprising, a ruthless noble stages a palace coup. The noble–the new queen–frames Laska for the regicide the queen herself committed. But the new queen quite likes Ulín, as both are scholars and innovators. The queen needs Ulín's theory, she wants Ulín on her side. She's promising to restore Ulín's lost magic and all the privileges that went with it. But Ulín cannot abandon Laska, or force herself to turn away from the uncomfortable realization that her theory is probably garbage. Armed only with the knowledge of five languages and a forged letter, she rescues Laska from prison, which triggers, well, more adventures and more linguistics. There are five other viewpoint characters in the book, all very different people, because I wanted to write in a multicultural and multilingual setting at a time of social upheaval. There is magic as class privilege, and the early days of social science disciplines; shapeshifters and chases, bird weathervanes, dumplings, grandmothers, and a genderqueer deity of music. I love it. I hope readers will too.
JR: It sounds like you started constructing languages before you took up the formal study of linguistics. Did your later studies change the way you thought of language construction?
RL: I've been constructing languages on and off since I was six! Unlike many conlangers, I am not really interested in generating a large body of finely detailed work on every aspect of lexicon, phonology, morphology, and syntax. I am most interested in cognitive categories, which is to say a relatively limited set of concepts central to our cognition and pervasive in human experience. Examples are possession, gender, space, time, motion. Languages encode these categories in incredibly diverse ways. Russian, for example, is very rich in motion verbs. There are multiple prefixed verbs recording tiny details of motion trajectory (e.g. pereprygnul, "overjumped"; podnyrnul, "underdove"). English verbal inventory is rich in verbs denoting manner of motion, so for "jump" people can hop, skip, leap, bounce, bound, spring, hurdle, vault, and quite possibly caper, while in Hebrew they can only likfots (jump) and lekapets (hop). When I work on a constructed language, I want to know interesting things about how it expresses cognitive categories, and how this correlates with culture. I was fairly inclined to do this early on, even though I had no idea why I was doing this. The more I learned, the more aware I became of what exactly fascinated me. In graduate school, while working on and off on motion verbs, I came up with a fantasy culture in which people use magic to develop a unique way of moving. Then I asked myself how the speakers would express this unique way of motion; this shaped a lot of other things about their language and culture (I am hoping that this culture will appear in the sequel to Bridgers). When I started transitioning into sociolinguistics, questions of language and society rose to the fore for me in my fiction work.
JR: Have you used any of your constructed languages in your work? Does Bridgers feature any of them?
RL: Multiple languages appear in Bridgers, but we only "hear" two: Dathmari, a minority language, and Loroli, a minority language that is likely related to it. We learn how these languages are stratified by class, and how and why this matters. Another culture in Bridgers, Khana, is stratified by gender–men and women lead separate lives and have different linguistic inventories. In a traditional Khana society, men speak scholars' Khana and some Khanishti, while the women speak Khanishti and non-Khana languages, which they learn so they can trade. I wanted to play with this concept because of Jewish multilingualisms, and other multilingualisms that are gender-stratified.
So without getting boggled in even more in details, the answer is yes!
JR: That sounds fascinating. Can you unpack some of the nuances of Jewish multiligualisms and gender-stratification? How do those things parallel your work on the languages in Bridgers?
RL: This is a monograph-length discussion. I looked for inspiration at Jewish diasporic communities, in which men and women tended to have different linguistic inventories. In many (though not all) Jewish communities around the world, men studied Hebrew and Aramaic. While women could acquire these languages as well, especially when taught by their fathers or brothers, there was no formalized context in which women would acquire and practice these languages. On the other hand, in many communities women would speak not just the Jewish vernacular, but the non-Jewish vernaculars of their neighbors. In Eastern European contexts, for example, a woman of marriageable age would be considered an especially attractive marriage prospect if she had a good command of Polish (or Russian, depending on the location), since women could use these languages in trade. On the other hand, a young man was considered a good match if he was a Talmud scholar. In Birdverse (the universe in which Bridgers takes place), Khana communities vary according to where they are located geographically, but these communities are gender-stratified: women are traders and are the outward-facing group while men, engaged in prayer and holy artifice, are the inward-facing group. Their languages differ accordingly (as I mentioned above).
JR: Do you ever write poetry or fiction in the other languages you speak?
RL: Yes. Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish are all languages in which I have written poetry at various stages in my life. I have written some fiction in Hebrew and Russian as well, but there was a very long period in which I was not writing anything creatively, and when I began doing so again, English was my language of choice.
JR: Have you considered translating either your own work or the work of others?
RL: Translating is an art and requires talent, which I lack. I admire those who can translate, though.
JR: How do you approach integrating your activist concerns–linguistics as we've been discussing, or the related themes of multiculturalism and genderqueerness that you brought up earlier–into your work? Does it take a lot of time and effort to work those things in, or do they come naturally?
RL: My gender ID is fluid, so genderqueerness does not require a special effort on my part. On the other hand, our model narratives are sadly not very rich in any kind of queerness. While I might be queer, for the longest time I felt that "real" stories and poems had to have straight men and women in them. Poetry helped me to begin decolonizing. I wrote queer poetry before I wrote queer fiction.
"Coming naturally" is somewhat deceptive. The more one works on nuancing one's thinking on certain identity issues, the more these issues come up, the more these questions are foregrounded. What is the canonical narrative? Who is the canonical protagonist? What is my canonical narrative, what are the issues important to me, who are the people I am writing about? How do their different identity concerns intersect? How are they constrained and empowered by their societies? What languages do they speak, and in what contexts? What are my characters, my worlds, trying to tell me about my own struggle for identity? There is, however, a great difference between having these questions at the core of one's storytelling, and implementing this vision effortlessly. The opposite is true for me: the more detailed, nuanced, and intersectional my work becomes, the more it requires from me as a writer. I think my characters, my worlds, as well as my people here, in this world, are saying: "Pay attention. Make an effort." I am sure I fail plenty, but I am doing my very best to fail better; and I am looking forward to growing–as a writer, as a person, as an activist, and as a scholar.
JR: Do you worry about getting it wrong?
RL: I worry about getting enough different people "on screen" so that each person does not become tokenized as the sole representative of their gender or sexual identity, or the sole representative of a given culture and social class. Building up this intersectionality was one of the most fascinating aspects of writing Bridgers. I want my writing to be nuanced and layered. My characters feel like real people to me, and they are all very different.
JR: "Between the Mountain and the Moon" took first place in the poetry category of this year's Readers' Poll. Where did that come from, and how did you decide to use that form to tell the story? How does form affect substance in poetry?
RL: In the Fall of 2011, I was working on a series of mostly queer poems about shape-changers. When Magick4Terri, a charity auction for Terri Windling, came along, I decided to offer a poem about metamorphosis, featuring a creature or object of the winning bidder's choice. I said that if bidding passed $50, I would also create a linoleum block print featuring the creature or object.
Bidding very quickly reached $50, and I started offering stretch goals: a companion piece featuring either wood, stone, wind, fire, or storm (the bidder's choice) with accompanying art, and, at $200, a third and capping poem with accompanying art, and a promise to bind all three into an artist's book. Izlinda Hani Jamaluddin was the winning bidder, and she asked me for a black panther and fire. I wanted to write three poems, but instead, what emerged was a poem in three parts with a coda. The whole process is described here, with some pictures of the accompanying art. I was thrilled when Sonya [Taaffe] bought the poem for Strange Horizons, because I enjoyed sharing it with a wider audience. In addition to being the winner of the SH readers' poll (thank you, everybody!!), it is also now a Rhysling award nominee in the long poetry category.
JR: As a reader and editor, what do you hope to see in the future of speculative poetry? Are there any emerging voices you think are especially noteworthy?
RL: When I began editing Stone Telling in 2010, my hope was to provide a venue, a context, for which folks would be inspired to write work that they wouldn't dare to write otherwise, work that would not necessarily find a home elsewhere. It happened, and keeps happening. For example, we just accepted Sofia Samatar’s incredible poem “Long-Ear” for the upcoming Body issue. She wrote back to say this:
"I have wanted for years to write about the Dhegdheer story and I could never figure out how to do it. It's very personal and painful for me. Somehow, the subject of "Body" and the community the two of you have helped foster through ST came together to show me that there would be a way to engage with and transform the folktale."
The field shifted too, with venues such as Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, Through the Gate, Apex, and Tor.com publishing work that is raw and brilliant and painful and true, work that fronts people and their lives and experiences, rather than disembodied ideas. I have high hopes for the new Interfictions as well. Personally, I would like to see more opportunities to publish poetry collections. I would also love to see more science and science fiction poetry like what we published in Stone Telling 6.
And of course, Shweta and I are always on the lookout for new and diverse voices. Watching an emerging poet blossom is a wonderful thing. I want to briefly highlight four people.
Bogi Takács (a neurolinguist and Hungarian Jew) is deservedly getting more recognition for eir work as a reviewer and critic in SFF. Eir poetry and prose are starting to appear in various publications, which makes me very happy, as I think eir viewpoint is exciting and fresh. I loved the deeply felt religiosity, tenderness, and far-future SF in eir poem Torah and Secular Learning" in Strange Horizons.
Ada Hoffmann is an emerging poet and writer with work in Strange Horizons. She blogs about autism at ada_hoffmann.livejournal.com, and has important things to say. We just accepted a powerful poem from her for the Body issue of Stone Telling, "Turning to Stone."
Sofia Samatar is not exactly a newcomer, but her first publication was in Stone Telling 5 (Fall 2011). Her "Girl Hours" in Stone Telling 6 remains for me one of the very best examples of feminist poetry, and probably my favorite example of science poetry (I also love the science poetry of Mary Agner). I am very much looking forward to reading her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, which is making its way to me right now.
I might be wrong, but I think Dominik J. Parisien's first poem appeared in 2012 in Inkscrawl. I love the two poems that we published in Stone Telling; I would like to highlight "In His Eighty-Second Year," which was nominated for the Rhysling Award.
Speaking of which, six poems from our Queer issue got nominated for the Rhysling this year. These poems, as well as many tremendous others, have been collected in Here, We Cross. It makes me happy that queer speculative poetry is getting all this recognition–this is what I hoped to achieve from the beginning, since I felt there wasn't enough queer work in the field.
JR: Finally, there's a myth that activists are always angry and have no sense of humor. In my experience, though, activists love humor, and need levity as much as everyone else. Would you share one or two things (can be jokes, books, YouTube videos, whatever) that have made you laugh lately?
RL: Is it very undignified to say Oglaf? [NSFW] I guess I said it! It makes me laugh!
However, these classical Soviet work safety posters may be even better. Don't Walk on Fish! I concur.
PhD comics helped me survive graduate school. I wish they had more strips for and about pre-tenure faculty, but they do have some. This is what my life looks right now. As well as this. And this is what I'll be doing in a week. Also, this strip amuses me because I used to be the woman on the right, but now I seem to be the woman on the left.
I love whimsical stuff and wish I wrote more of it. Here's a poem of mine, The Tenured Faculty Meets to Discuss the Moon's Campus Visit," which is about celestial bodies and campus politics.
JR: Rose Lemberg, thank you very much for sharing your insights into language and poetry, activism and storytelling.