On Gendered Language
When my bilingual poetry collection, Boomerang/Bumerán, was published last year, I felt a tremendous sense of gratification at seeing one of its central elements—the use of non-gendered language, particularly in Spanish—recognized, and often lauded by critics. It’s not as though there weren’t dissenting voices, though. A sister poet decried in a social media post how I’d ruined Spanish, that I’d perverted a few lines of a classic tango by excising gender from the lyrics.
I’d been thinking about gender for a good while. During my last few years teaching at Mills College—a now shuttered women’s college where more than half the student population identified as queer and a goodly percentage as non-binary—my students had insisted on putting gender front and center. College is often a time of both discovery and experimentation and at a school where sexuality was never marginalized, we woke to, lunched on, and dreamt about gender, about what erasing the binary might look like, about what we could do with language to deconstruct the patriarchy.
As a translator, mostly from Spanish to English, but not infrequently from English to Spanish, I’ve been pondering this issue for a while. In English, “they” solves a lot of problems, but Spanish—inherently binary—does not have a similar solution so readily available. In Spanish, gender is always marked, not just for living beings but also inanimate objects: the table is feminine, coffee is masculine. In Spain, the common vulgar word for penis is feminine; clitoris is masculine. (Explain that last one to me, please.)
Rita Indiana is a writer for whom gender is front and center in her stories, but who avoids explicitly addressing or publicly engaging with questions relating to non-binary terminology. In Tentacle, Indiana’s cli-fi novel, which I translated into English, the author moves between ella and él in talking about the main character, Acilde, who is transgender, with nary a non-binary pause between. I wondered: was this a deliberate choice or was she simply doing her best under the constraints of a language that is so highly gendered? I’ve never gotten clarity from Indiana on this issue, so I chose to hew closely to the original.
I’ll be honest, Boomerang/Bumerán wasn’t originally written in a genderless format—in either language. That was an evolution that resulted from the process of curating the poems that would eventually be included, and my parallel reflections on genderless language. I wondered: what would gender-free language sound like? What would it look like on the page?
I was transparent with my editors and in all my public presentations—this is not, for the most part, my day-to-day speech. Of course, I use “they,” sure, my pals and I banter about “amigues” and “todes” in Spanish. But the world, I think, is in a period of transition with language (as it always is), and there’s little consistency to any of these innovations when it’s late at night, the music’s loud, and we’re all talking at once.
Where we might land after this is anyone’s guess. What I did in Boomerang/Bumerán isn’t meant as a manifesto but as an experiment—one way, one voice. But who knows? On a street corner in San Salvador or La Paz, there may be a yet unknown form developing. Or, something like Polari or Lóxoro, queer crypto languages originating in London and Lima, respectively, may yet overtake all we now know and become our new, genderless lingua franca. I have no doubt that, when it comes to gender, how we speak and write now will be anachronistic, if not forgotten, in fifty years.
So, what’s next? The question isn’t abstract, and I don’t mean to be coy. For me, it is an urgent and very personal one. After Boomerang/Bumerán, I returned to the novel I’ve been writing since 2017 (don’t get me started …). Its treatment of gender—across more than 200 pages—is mostly traditional, with one exception: when it addresses a trans character, about midway through the story. The character is minor but pivotal, and the narrative refers to them appropriately. The story isn’t a trans story per se (none of the main characters are trans), but I think gender-free language should be available across a wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities. So why am I so uncomfortable with going back and revisiting this text in a more global sense? Why am I holding on to the gender binary when it comes to this story? The truth is, I don’t have answers to this yet.
More problematic is a new text, a collection of poems about life with my sons, tentatively titled The Boy Kingdom. Initiated after Boomerang/Bumerán—I know! What’s my damn excuse?—the poems have come to me in an insistently gendered language. I could tell you that gendering the boys and these pieces is crucial to the telling, and that would be true, but maybe not always. I don’t know.
Do I have a duty to keep pushing these ideas by exemplifying them in my own work? Is my writing now forever committed to my poetic experiment? Or do I get to pat myself on the back, say I did it once, and move on? I ask myself a lot of questions about gender, but also about courage and cowardice, selfishness and obligations. I fear I’ll go conservative, I fear I’ll go too far.
I’ll keep you posted.
Poet, novelist, journalist, translator, and teacher Achy Obejas was born in Havana, Cuba. When she was six years old, she and her family immigrated to the United States during the Cuban Revolution. She is the author of the bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Boomerang/Bumerán (2021), the novels The Tower of the Antilles (2017),...