The Big Idea: R. B. Lemberg

It can be hard to find the right words to express yourself. For author and linguist R. B. Lemberg, it might help that they have several languages to choose from. Come along in their Big Idea as they tell you about how language can be ever-changing, adaptable, or even restricting, and how this plays into their newest novel, The Unbalancing.


Lately, I’ve seen many calls to abolish pronouns. Today, for example, I saw a tweet that read, “No one has pronouns. You are either he or she.” (he and she are pronouns; so are things like this and that). As a linguist, I am always amazed at certain people’s eagerness to cancel whole parts of speech in order to further certain political agendas. As a linguist, I am also always interested in this idea — what happens if we do start canceling parts of speech? This has been a topic of my recent viral Twitter thread, and also a theme in a new Birdverse novella on submission. 

As a linguist, I can also say that gender expressions in languages around the world are diverse and varied. Some languages do not express gender at all, and/or do not express gender through pronouns, or not just through pronouns. Hungarian, a language with no grammatical gender, is spoken in Hungary, a country with restrictive anti-LGBTQIA+ policies. Hungary is also home to many queer and trans people.

Having the means of expression beyond the binary does not result in more rights.

Conversely, canceling parts of speech does not undo the existence of people. 

I am a person whose first language(s) did not include nonbinary options when I was growing up. As a member of the last Soviet generation, I grew up with no LGBTQIA+ representation outside of slurs. It did not make me straight or cis, although it did make me closeted way too long; I’m glad all that is behind me.  The lack of language and representation did not undo my existence. It did hurt me, and people like me. My closeted silence did nothing good in the world. My voice, I hope, goes farther.

As a queer and nonbinary migrant – and as a linguist – I am astounded every day by the power of language to change, to adapt, to create and maintain community. Linguistic history of the world is a history of change, diversity, and variation. Language changes because it is spoken by people who want to express things which are important for them to express. When language stops changing, it is no longer alive.

The Unbalancing is the first novel in my long-standing Birdverse fantasy world. Since the very first Birdverse story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies back in 2011, Birdverse has been a place which centered queer and trans people. LGBTQIA+ people in Birdverse do not always have it easy. Some countries and cultures are more accepting and welcoming than others, and people who travel or migrate between different places might be shocked by the differences in language and culture that make space for people like them – or take it away. 

In The Unbalancing, I wanted to imagine queer utopia. The archipelago is a place of refuge for people who do not fit in their home countries. The society of the islands is welcoming and carefree, celebrating the many expressions of gender and sexuality. One of the key features of archipelago culture is its recognition of women, men, and ichidar. Ichidi (plural ichidar) is a word which roughly corresponds to our nonbinary gender. But nonbinary gender is not monolithic – neither in our world, nor in Birdverse. The islanders recognize “the five ichidi variations”, which are represented by words and animal symbols accompanied by lyrical sayings for each variation.

One of the powerful elders in The Unbalancing, the shipwright Dorod, is rugár, an ichidi variation symbolized by the bear. The saying of rugár is “I am both bears,” corresponding roughly to the bigender identity in our world. Some of the variations in this world have no clear our-world equivalents, others do. As a nonbinary author, I revel in this worldbuilding. Our literature is the literature of imagination. SFF as a field has long embraced social worldbuilding of all kinds. I am here for this, and I hope my readers will be too.

Imagining the archipelago where The Unbalancing is set has been bittersweet for me, since I have long set up through other stories and poems that this utopia does not survive in its original form. But the islander culture survives, and this survival continues to shape Birdverse and my writing. The Unbalancing is, in many ways, a book about failure, about the triumphs and faultlines of community. It is a love letter to people looking for worlds and words that fit. We yearn for language to include us because we yearn for our truths, and for belonging.

In a scene in the book, Erígra Lilún, the protagonist, tells their lover about a conversation they had earlier with the shipwright Dorod. “Dorod told me this before we began — that our culture must survive… Who we are is important, is precious, is rare. Each one of us is the whole of our people, carrying all our love and our failures and our histories in our bones, and unless we all perish, nobody and nothing can take that away.” 

It is my truth, and I hold on to it. Language exists because people do. Gender-variant people have always existed. In the current political climate, it’s easy to feel besieged or hopeless – but even if every part of speech is cancelled, we will continue to be born. 

I hope that you will give The Unbalancing a try. All are welcome on the archipelago.

The Unbalancing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow them on Twitter.

5 Comments on “The Big Idea: R. B. Lemberg”

  1. Gen Y here, in a progressive area, whole bunch of non binary, agender, bigender, etc. friends and family members and colleagues. They use various pronouns and it’s completely normal.

    I am a cis woman but I absolutely have pronouns (she/her/hers) and people use them and that works super well for me, so of course I want to reciprocate. A small thing that makes an enormous difference to the well being of people I care about – it’s that simple. I’ve been used to this for well above 10 years. Hopefully people who are upset about the issue and have a profound emotional investment in unrealistic and extremely rigid Euro colonial approaches to sex and gender will pause and reconsider.

  2. Love the Twitter thread.

    “Tantrum” pretty well describes the default for the anti “pronoun” types.

  3. As a (clearly Scalzi but also) Banks fan, this spurred a conversation about Marain and how much language can ever be hegemony. As a person who strains English and defaults to queer, I’m down for even a temporary and complicated utopia. I had one and I know that losing it is not the same thing as never living in it.

  4. what pisses me off about my fundamentalist relatives has been their expectation for respect-tolerance-protection but then flipping over to demand their fundamentalism be grounds for excusing them from ever providing the same respect-tolerance-protection to other oppressed minorities

    there’s nothing quite as mind boggling as a group of Jews who had first hand experience of systemic abuse refusing to step up and defend other groups… some of my relatives who almost died in slave labor camps in Poland and Germany until their last breath insisted homosexuals should be ‘sent away’ (they were always vague on what they meant by that)…

    so I am seriously angry on this still and all I could do is wait till that last breath silences their bigotry…

    …and so maybe now it is time to define — to expand upon — what it means to be an American