R.I.P. Suzette Haden Elgin: Author, Poet, Verbal Self-Defense Coach

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Suzette Haden Elgin: Author, Poet, Verbal Self-Defense Coach

Suzette Haden Elgin, who died last week, was a pioneer of using linguistics in science fiction, creating a whole constructed language in her novel Native Tongue. She was a giant of feminist SF. And she helped bring SF poetry to prominence, while also teaching us to defend ourselves with wit rather than bile.


Elgin had a PhD in linguistics, so it's no surprise that her Native Tongue book trilogy is all about language. The book takes place in a dystopian future, where women have been stripped of all rights when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1996. A group of women, who work as part of a corps of linguists who help to communicate with alien races, develop a new secret language for women to use as part of their resistance to their oppression. This language is called Láadan, and Elgin has a whole vocabulary and syntax on her website.

She also wrote several other SF novels, including the Coyote Jones series, which started with The Communipaths in 1970, and the Planet Ozark series, which started with 1981's Twelve Fair Kingdoms. And a standalone novel, Peacetalk 101. She was working on a new novel when she died, about a linguist from the U.S. Corps of Linguists who fails her finals and is thus sent to do fieldwork on an alien planet, studying four languages spoken there.

Elgin also founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and was a powerful advocate for science fiction poetry — read her essay about defining and appreciating SF poetry here. The Association's Elgin award is named after her. Elgin wrote an incredibly moving and poignant poem about grieving for her own son's death, and you can read the last draft she completed here.

But her best-known work is probably non-fiction, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and its sequels. Though it was written in 1985, Gentle Art still has a lot of application to those of us who find ourselves stuck in pointless and circuitous arguments.


Here's how the book's back cover describes it:

Don't turn the other cheek and fume quietly; know what to say when someone throws out the snide backhanded "compliment," subtle insult, cruel criticism, or outright verbal blow. Inside these pages is an arsenal of tools for fending off that attack and neutralizing the harm spiteful words inflict. Learn to identify modes of verbal assault, such as laying blame, and to recognize when someone is about to launch a linguistic strike and the motivation behind it. Sample scripts prevent you from getting tongue-tied, and a progress journal helps you use voice and body language for maximum effect. Find out how to handle the eight most common types of verbal violence, and redirect and defuse potential verbal confrontations so skillfully that they rarely happen. Special suggestions are included for college students, men, and women, and for handling emergency situations such as an angry crowd.


In an interview with Women Writers, Elgin talked about the nature of activism and her work. She said:

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.



So sad to hear of her passing. I attended a panel she did on "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" at the (sadly defunct) Conestoga Writer's Convention in Tulsa several years ago. I'd never read her books, but she came off to me as a lovely person, and the panel was quite fascinating — it's influenced the way I interact with people ever since. If more people would study that book, I think our interactions would improve tremendously.