Coming of Age in Karhide: a short story I really didn't like

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Coming of Age in Karhide: a short story I really didn't like

Unread post by brungerbulb »

I really liked The Left Hand of Darkness the first time I read it. The cultures of the planet Gethen were fascinating to read about, and the differing perspectives of the first-person narrating characters were really interesting. I also, of course, have a very personal attachment to the biology of Gethenians, who get to experience a sort of estrous cycle rather than menses, wherein they basically get to choose which sex to become until their kemmer (heat) is through with. This appeals to me for obvious (transgender) reasons, and I won't lie, I did develop a bit of a crush on Therem Harth rem ir Estraven throughout my reading of the book.

I've been listening to it again on audiobook recently, and one detail I'd forgotten about that very much startled me was that Estraven had been married to their sibling in the past. I reasoned that it does kind of make sense in the story; since the world they live in is genderless, homophobia isn't a concept, and wanting to portray Estraven's relationship as being persecuted similar to a gay person's, Le Guin pulled from another sexual taboo and wrote that in instead. It may be a little bit gauche, for Le Guin to treat homosexuality as comparable to incest, but it wasn't that big of an aspect of the story and I wasn't that bothered by it. Well, okay, it did actually bother me a lot, to have a completely sympathetic character who had sex and a child with their own sibling without the audience being meant to read any abuse into the relationship, but whatever.

Anyway, I read another short story Le Guin wrote in the setting, Coming of Age in Karhide. It touches on the kemmerhouses, where Gethenians spend their kemmer, and, uh, well, I won't lie, I found it very upsetting. I did pull a bit of my hair out about it, but obviously, I can't really leave it alone. I keep thinking about it. You can read it here, ... n-karhide/. It features the narrator, Sov, looking back on their first kemmer (when they were fourteen) as a sixty-year-old. Sov initially expresses disgust at the idea of "fucking" and bonds with their cousin over it, but when they enter the kemmerhouse (again, at fourteen) they spend the night with all the adults there and love it. Sov also mentions that they slept with their cousin dozens and dozens of times in kemmer and enjoyed it, and even that their own child was "welcomed into kemmer" by their cousin, ie their child lost their virginity to their own aunt.

I'm not against fiction that features incest or abuse as a rule-- hell, Revolutionary Girl Utena is my favorite anime-- but I don't want to read a short story written by the most well-known feminist fantasist of all time that features statutory rape and cousin incest and ends with the passage "The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love." I think to myself, is this what feminism is? Lowering the age of consent? Laxxing incest laws? Am I being prudish for being stubborn in my belief that incest is still wrong, even if it's seen as societally acceptable? I feel incredibly anxious thinking about it. I remember having to go find an article on incest OCD triggers to remind myself to calm down. But more than that, I guess I feel like I've been kind of betrayed by Le Guin. I worry that, maybe, if The Tombs of Atuan had been written in the 2000's instead of the 70's, she might've actually written the fifteen-year-old Tenar into a relationship with twenty-five-year-old Ged. I've kind of lost interest in reading any of her other work after this short story. What would I have to learn from someone that genuinely believes there's nothing wrong with fucking your cousin?

I do think Le Guin loses a lot from just being anthropologist, and not a psychologist. She seems to understand some things only as taboo, not abuse. I guess it's mostly just kind of funny to me that she conceived of a world without rape, and then wrote an entire short story about statutory rape, seemingly without realizing it. The world of Gethenian sexuality seems a lot less appealing to me after learning they'd let me into the kemmerhouses as I am, a kid.

(Also, it may be a bit obvious by now, but I have OCD and incest is basically my biggest remaining trigger. So if you reply to this thread, I would definitely appreciate refraining from making an arguments towards IRL incest or statutory rape. Thanks)
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Re: Coming of Age in Karhide: a short story I really didn't like

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi brungerbulb,

Ooof, I have definitely had the experience of "I like this authors work, I will read this other thing, oh no what the heck" thought process of running into something I really, really upsetting. I do find it's most likely to happen with a writer who has a large body of work, because that just increases the odds that they've written something that I need to steer clear of. In some cases, it put me off an authors work entirely, in others I'd fall back on people who'd read it already to ask what they thought or if it contained certain things.

I'm glad you were able to find some resources to help you feel calmer when all this happened; I know it can be hard to do that sometimes when we're in a heightened emotional state.

I do think it's also totally fine to not want to read anymore of her work after this; one of the great things about art is that there's so much of it out there that we really can take our pick of what we do or don't engage with. Too, sometimes it can help to remember that one authors exploration of a character/universe they created doesn't equal what feminists, either her specifically or people who love her work, are actually in favor of.
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Re: Coming of Age in Karhide: a short story I really didn't like

Unread post by alriune »

whenever authors use real or pseudo incest as a way to explore "forbidden love" it SERIOUSLY grinds my nerves since there are many other, much more creative ways you can explore that concept (romance between two people of different religions, or different races, you could even come up with a made up oppressed/shunned class of people for your worldbuilding and incorporate that in there or make up your own taboos---and i'm sure an anthropologist would know about all kinds of taboos that exist in cultures across the world to draw inspiration from).

i have the same issue with some feminist intellectual writers where in their fiction they'll invoke incest or other types of sexual violence yet it feels more like a set piece than a meaningful part of the story, or that it's just there to be shocking and offensive....which you would think that feminists would be against using sexual violence as a plot device for shock value. don't take this as me being anti-intellectual at all because i love things like philosophy and theory, and i'm saying this as someone familiar with those topics that i think some feminist intellectuals fall into the same trap as their non-feminist counterparts where they get so engrossed in theory and intellectualizing that they get stuck in their heads and forget tangible reality. michel foucault described what he called the "medical gaze" wherein doctors forget to see their patients as people and instead a complex of organs to study and cure, as someone studying a social science i think a similar issue sometimes exists in the social sciences where we view the people affected by the subjects we study as hypotheticals or pawns instead of living, breathing people affected by these issues (economics has a HUGE problem with this)

a lot of "feminist" works of fiction fall flat with me for many reasons and probably the biggest reason is tactless or simplistic representations of serious issues
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