Jaran: When “what if” deals with gender and culture

Recent discussions in the SFF community reminded me of this post. It is adapted from the introduction I wrote to the 2002 10th anniversary edition of JARAN, published by DAW Books. It was previously posted on Live Journal in July 2011, before this WordPress blog existed. I’ve made a few minor changes.


Science fiction is often defined as a “literature of ideas,” and many famous SF stories can be identified by the idea, or nifty concept, or “what if” speculation that lies at their heart. Is my sf novel JARAN just a rousing adventure story with a romantic element, or is there some kind of science fictional speculation involved?

Glad you asked. Because I’ve discovered that people usually don’t ask. Too often they seem to just assume there isn’t because nothing in the book (if they’ve even read the book) fits the received and accepted definition of a sfnal “idea.”

What if, in a low-tech, chieftain-level pastoral society in which labor remains divided along a (fairly traditional by Western standards) gender line, women had real authority?

Not lip service authority. Not a lot of talk about women being the repository of honor in the home, or the teachers of the next generation, or the keeper of the house in a way that specifically limits them to the house, or the biologically equipped nurturing machines whose scriptural mandate is to be mother and helpmeet, but real authority: “The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1976)

As authority, that is, held over all members of society and not just over children and social inferiors. And not just some women, those who by birth or accident or exceptionalism have managed to wrest authority for themselves out of a patriarchal society by being “as good as a man,” but all women.

What would such a society look like? How might it function to grant equal dignity to women and men and yet at the same time fit realistically into a broader world and with an understanding of human nature and the needs of survival in a low-tech world with a high mortality rate?

Over the course of envisioning and revising the book, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Am I reinforcing notions of biological determinism by splitting labor along traditional gender lines as the average USA reader knows and expects them to be observed even today but particularly in our view of the past? Yet if I can only write women as “free and powerful” by freeing them from their “traditional” roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience? How can I mediate between these two extremes?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, although I can say that over time I’ve learned how fluid division of labor by gender is from society to society (as well as how fluid conceptualization of gender itself may be and how easy it is to fall into a binary definition of gender).

In terms of division of labor, for instance, in the jaran I made men the ones who embroider, but of course embroidery is not a universal female occupation; most USAians just tend to think it is.

In any case, in JARAN and the other volumes in the sequence I explore what respect and authority mean and how they might interact through and between genders and, by doing so, shape how the culture of the jaran tribes developed in the past and continues to develop when a disruptive new force begins to alter the social fabric of the tribes.

Yet I didn’t want to create a “matriarchy” in which women rule and men submit–an inverted patriarchy. I wanted to explore the idea of a culture in which all adult roles are truly respected. So I started with an assumption: For women to maintain authority, institutions within the culture have to support that authority.

I made the tribes matrilineal, and in addition borrowed from certain Native American traditions in which the right to hold certain offices and to inherit property follow down the female line.

I also made the jaran matrilocal: Under most circumstances, a new husband goes to live with his wife’s tribe. The locus of power within any given tribe centers on extended families of sisters. A woman’s relationship to her brother is considered to be the most stable female-male relationship, based on a shared mother and upbringing, and within extended families, cousins related through sisters or a sister and brother are considered like siblings (however, this is not true for cousins related through brothers).

In addition, women have possession of the tents and wagons, and they manage and distribute food and labor available to the tribe. As with the Haudenosaunee, jaran etsanas (headwomen) have the power to install or depose male tribal war leaders.

These familial, economic, and political relationships give women a network of support as well as a respect and autonomy that reinforces their authority.

Another aspect I played with was the cultural norms of sexual behavior. The hoary old cliché of male sexual aggression contrasted with female sexual passivity is still with us in American society in a multitude of forms. I chose to make jaran women the sexual initiators: They choose lovers at will when unmarried, and are free to continue to (discreetly) take lovers once they are married. However I gave men the choice in marriage. Although in practice almost all men (at the instigation of or with the assistance of their mothers and sisters) would negotiate with the other family first, it would be possible for a man to marry a woman whom he wanted but who did not want him. This contrasting pattern assured that neither sex had complete power over the other. Even in a strongly patriarchal society that is highly restrictive toward women, women will seek avenues of balance and redress when they can, including underhanded ones. History is full of such examples. I wanted to place mine right out on the table.

I catapult my protagonist into this culture without preparing her for it. Since she comes from a future Earth where the dregs of our patriarchal past still hold some sway over her way of thinking, she often has the opportunity to misinterpret what freedom and authority mean among the jaran.

When I look back at the book now, over two decades later, I can see ways in which my own thinking has changed, things I might have written differently but which reflect the era and attitudes with which I grew up and the ways in which my thinking has changed since then.

Ultimately, looking back, I wish that discussing my speculative ideas behind the jaran society weren’t still timely. To quote sff writer N. K. Jemisin in her excellent post on “The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy,” “Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.”

That’s the idea I was trying to explore, back then. We’re still struggling with it now.

5 thoughts on “Jaran: When “what if” deals with gender and culture

  1. It is sad that Jaran is still timely, even now.

    If you were writing it today for the first time…how WOULD you change those dials?

  2. Pingback: Kate Elliott on Gender Roles in Jaran - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

  3. I don’t know. In some ways, I don’t worry too much about how I would change things because the book represents the time it was written and thus is a window into how I was writing and thinking at that time.

    OTOH, there are two things I think I would definitely do differently today.
    1) I think the “future Earth” culture is too “western-like” even though the *characters* are diverse ethnically, because I wasn’t thinking enough about making it a truly world culture with regional elements.

    2) I would have written the “future Earth” people with a more fluid view of gender. It’s quite binary, which I think is a product of the time it was written.

  4. I read Jaran a long time ago, and it was love at first sight. There was something so refreshing and liberating about it in terms of the gender equality and strong female lead. Unfortunately, I was never able to find the sequels, and it was years before Crown of Stars appeared…

    Anyway, Jaran made a huge impact on me and thank you for that.

  5. Francis,

    thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind words about Jaran. I wanted at the time to do something that would examine and rethink gender, and it means a lot to me to know that you thought so.

    The ebook revolution has been such a great thing because it means that (for example) my backlist (and the other jaran books you weren’t able to find then) are accessible now in e-versions (although for people who prefer or only read print they are now very very hard to find in used editions).

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