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  • Writer's pictureWilson Whitlow

On "Thorny jargon"

The Kirkus review of Consent Vol. 1 warns readers of “thorny jargon” – arising mainly from the use the gender-neutral pronouns se/ser throughout much of the novel. I’m not about to bicker with a review I willingly posted, but would just note that these pronouns are an essential part of the world of the book. Once I had decided that most of the characters would not identify as male or female, the use of gender-neutral pronouns became inevitable and necessary.

Lemit, Grist and Cusp do not understand themselves to be men or women, live in a society that finds such distinctions objectionable, and do not even have the habits of thought that organize people in this manner. To call them he or she would be a betrayal of their basic self-conception and the logic of their culture.

Yet we don’t have gender-neutral pronouns that have achieved concensus. They/them has become common, mainly because there are no other viable alternatives that are both familiar and – at this juncture at least – real words. In real life they/them will do, but in fiction I find them problematic. I don’t like using a plural pronoun to refer a singular person. Moreover, deploying they/them clutters the page with these rather obtrusive words and forces the reader to riddle out where and when the pronouns are meant to be singular or truly plural.

I researched alternatives that have been proposed. Se/ser seemed among the most elegant of options, being visually very close to he/her and not too difficult to say. Once decided, I went all in. I found it difficult at first not using gender-specific pronouns. This wasn’t merely due to the mechanics of writing. I automatically wanted to think of the characters as either male or female, using this “elemental” characteristic as one around which I would organize my thoughts. Over time, it became more and more natural to conceptualize these characters as neither male nor female. The accoutrements of gender fell away, and they became uniquely themselves.

One will notice that the chapters narrated from Djo’s perspective use he/him and she/her. This is natural for Djo and reflects his world view. Interesting things happen when Djo interacts with the “city people” and he struggles to categorize them based on a typology they deny.

I find this all fascinating to explore as a writer. But it is also very real. In writing Consent, I have reflected on how far flung a prediction it is that gender-neutral pronouns will become common currency. One can already see the problems of having to introduce oneself as this or that, and the “thorny” issues of deciding, without more, what to call another person. For this reason, we may not have to wait 800 years for gender-neutral pronouns to gain traction, and I can see my grandchildren entering an academic or professional world where they call their friends se/ser, or something very similar.

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