last year I wrote a long post about the way the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie and the Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley present fictional societies with different gender structures than the familiar (colonial/modern) one. In that post I wrote:
But yes, for all its discussion of gender as a culturally variable thing, we basically get two kinds of society in the Imperial Radch books: the Radch, where there is no gendered division of anything and gender doesn’t even make sense (except in recently annexed cultural groups who haven’t fully assimilated); and other societies which have a gender binary, which however confusingly it’s expressed in Breq’s eyes, still distinguishes exactly two gender classes which Breq can ‘translate’ as ‘male’ and ‘female’. Possibly Ancillary Mercy will introduce something else!
Ancillary Mercy did not, but recently I’ve been reading Ann Leckie’s latest book, Provenance, set on a planet called Hwae. The variant gender is largely left as a background thing - the third-person limited narration, from the perspective of a Hwaean character called Ingray, proceeds as if the reader is already familiar, and allows us to pick it up through seeing it in practice. I think this is exactly the right approach.
So far (and it may be elaborated further later in the book), the people of Hwae have three gender roles: men, women, and nemen, who take ‘e/eir’ (Spivak) pronouns. Most interestingly, children are not assigned genders at birth but referred to with ‘they’ pronouns, and may elect at a point of their choosing (after a certain age) to adopt an adult name and a gender. While doing this early isn’t mandatory, in the first third of the book, it’s noted that people mock Ingray’s sister for delaying this ceremony for years. Certain jobs, such as becoming a senior cop, require official acceptance of adulthood.
Hwae likewise has an extended family structure that’s quite far from the heterosexual nuclear family, more akin to older extended noble families. There are a number of quirks: children are routinely fostered temporarily or permanently out to other families (or potentially assigned to a ‘community crèche’ if nobody immediately wishes to foster them).
There’s frequent mention of family heads, such as Ingray’s mother, but if she has other parents it’s not hugely clear who they are. She has a ‘nuncle’ (neman sibling of her mother, presumably), but I saw no mention of another mother, a father, or a [neman parent] of Ingray. There is a mechanism of succession in which the successor becomes, legally, the same person as their predecessor for all formal purposes as soon as they are declared successor---so there might, at any time, be two Netanos running around. There’s no restriction on gender in succession, and we’ve already seen a man whose daughter is his successor and legally the same person.
In terms of the material consequences of this gender system, it’s less clear how division of reproductive labour is handled---if ‘women’ of Hwae are expected (at least traditionally) to perform devalued caring/reproductive labour, or what the role of nemen might be. Men and women (and surely also nemen) are equally capable of taking on the role of family head.
Of course, as in all Ann Leckie books, language and translation are significant. At least two languages feature in Hwae, and at different points characters use different languages to be understood by other characters, or not. Unlike Imperial Radch, there is little emphasis on different languages’ representation of gender - I haven’t combed the dialogue to check, but it does seem like the four different kinds of gender pronoun (he, she, e, they) can be expressed equally well in the relevant languages.
It also seems to be the case that gender is signified clearly enough that it can be read at a glance. As the book opens, Ingray rescues Pahlad Budrakim (who she knows to be a neman) from prison, only to have the person she rescues say e is not Pahlad. But Ingray does not then have to question whether the person she rescued is still a neman, and continues to use ‘e’ pronouns.
Much like the Radch, there’s no sense that Hwae is supposed to be a utopian society - it’s got its own contradictions and problems, its own fraught political system, its own violence and injustice in the ‘Compassionate Removal’ prison system. Unlike Breq, who was unmistakably Radchaai but also scathingly critical of the Radch, Ingray still largely accepts the norms of Hwae as the book opens, only starting to have her faith shaken a bit in notions like ‘vestiges’ through her interactions with ‘Pahlad’.
I am only a third of the way through this book, so I’m going to be very interested to see how it builds on all this.