Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Door into the Ocean

A Door into the Ocean

Meet Merwen the Impatient and Usha the Inconsiderate. We learn that the two women are foreigners in this place where they have just arrived—the planet Valedon. They are Sharers. They come from a wet place, and so give us a sense that this place is very different from their own. There is constant reference to "parched," "dry floor," which suggests the contrast with their part of the world. Their mission: unknown. They simply state that they are here to share—they are sharers, right? Check out the many variations of the word share:

And indeed they share knowledge, medicinal, and other social qualities, which is ironic given they seem non-human.

And then we meet the residents of Valedon, and see that they are in fact people. People who live and struggle under the yolk of stern régimes reminiscent of the ones we know here on earth. It appears the Shorans are the ones we'd treat with suspect, for they seem to have it too easy. They seem to be in control of their lives; they know what they are doing, unlike, the Ahns, Melas, Tybalts, and the Beryls of Chrysoport.These Valans live a hard life. They have to earn their keep, they live off their sweat and yield to heartless enforcers of the laws of their land. I couldn't shake the biblical memory of Israel under the Egyptian taskmasters.

Joan Slonczewski, on her website, calls this a book of binaries and indeed there are. These binaries mostly rotate around the issue of gender. At first, it seems like female is good and male is bad; thus we have Sharer (female), physically weak, but spiritually superior; Valan (male), otherwise referred to as male-freak. The Sharers are associated with organic, natural science seen through their medicinal healing and are life preserving, as opposed to the Valans, who are sort of stone cold and associated inorganic and physical science. Their lives are depicted as rationed in terms of food, ability to procreate, and the progression from one level to another is hard and painful. These characteristics manifest themselves in the health and well-being of the Sharers as opposed to the ill health of the Valans.

Even the dresses of the two are women are described as 'common' but of "fine silk"; they look disgusting but they smell gingerly (3) and they are fearless and courageous, unlike Valan men, who cower before the moon soldiers.

The other contrast is reflected in the general description of the Valans: they are depicted as violent, cruel and unkind. There is no sense of social justice; this capitalist nation is man eat man, where taxation is high and mercilessly exacted.

So, binaries are at the heart of Door Into the Ocean, and, I suspect that deconstructing them is the task of the reader. There seems to be a play on the words 'share' and 'valan'. Valan speaks of valor, physical strength, force macho, Sexuality—while the Sharers are human, they are all female and reproduce by "fusing ova," a supposedly complicated process that requires hands-on management. I have to wonder if Slonczewski borrowed this idea from Gilman's Herland. The process is unlike that of male/female fusion, so to speak, and it serves to highlight the difference of the Sharers, at least as far as the Valans go.

The spirituality of the Sharers is not to be taken lightly. It is their inner strength that serves to underscore the worth of every single Sharer individually and collectively as a people. It is manifested in the scene at the start of the book when Roald threatens the two as they wait under the shade. They may have been drained of color, but "not from fear" (9). Further, we are told of the fearlessness in their stares as they look beyond the harbor and the cruel soldiers out to harass them. It speaks to a collective sense of destiny that values consensus. According to The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures by Bonnie Zimmerman, A Door into the Ocean portrays a "feminist non-violent utopia threatened by patriarchal invasion" (790). The novel seems to have been appropriated by the Gay and Lesbian community. Perhaps it's because the Sharer women are portrayed in glowing terms—strong, resilient, self-sufficient, even though not necessarily male–bashing, but are affirmative of who they are as women. They are, however, contemptuous of the Valans as seen in the exchange between Usha and the dolomite corporal, Kaol. Usha seems to be offended by the very word father, particularly in as far as it is associated with oppressing a young woman, for shaming the family for bringing a child into the world out of wedlock. Theirs is a world without fathers.

There is also the linguistic barrier posed by the two distinct planets. It seems rather unfair that while the sharers can understand Valan, their language sounds like Greek in the ears of the Valans, as Spinel finds out. Spinel, it seems plays an important, if bridging role in the novel. He leaves valan to travel to Shora where, after living for a while, he slowly metamorphoses into a moon-creature. He recognizes that he is quite the sacrificial lamb, who has to experience life on Shore as he immerses himself completely in it. it's important to realize that he is not coerced. He chose to not take the pills, for example, a sign Merwin interprets as acquiescence. He becomes a learnersharer--a self-namer.

The writer's knowledge of biology and her feminist ideals seem to infuse her fiction in the form of ecofeminism. As well, Edward Higgins suggests that the writer's Quacker root, or what he calls, "
Quaker-informed values bring her story’s conflicts into a thematic focus of an ethical-theological nature." He quotes Slonscweski as saying:
  • My experience with the Quakers permeates everything I write. I have been shaped by the Quaker example of listening and relating to that of God in everyone and every creature. In my books, wherever people resolve differences by intersecting seemingly irreconcilable views--that comes directly out of what I’ve seen among Quakers (qtd. Higgins)
At any rate, Slonscweski uses her ability as story teller to transmit her sense of values and ideals, through as interwoven plot of a people that leads us through a door into the ocean.The plot seems far-fetched and long-winded, but I liked the book for what I perceived to be its lack of pretentiousness.

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