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The Left Hand of Darkness: Reflections from Discussion

Last week we had our much anticipated discussion of our 3rd book club of 2023 hosted by Corina Breukel. A narrative medicine graduate from the University of Columbia, Corina chose us a science-fiction classic by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Left Hand of Darkness.

The book follows the mission of Genly Ai, an ambassador of an interplanetary union, which seeks to unite all planets across the galaxies to enhance knowledge exchange and life for the people of each planet. Genly, a man, who come from a world seemingly like our earth, sacrifices everything for this mission. Just to arrive on Gethen, he has to travel 17 cryogenic years, with logistical difficulties making it difficult for him to go back to his planet, let alone ever see his loved ones again.

As a Canadian expat, living already 11 years in the Netherlands, I could appreciate the anthropological perspective of trying to understand a different place. The amount of careful consideration about the meaning of things and recognizing one’s own inability to understand something simply because you were not taught this from a young age is palpable. Genly struggles to understand mannerisms and what it means to be polite and/or rude. Often feeling awkward he struggles to put things in terms the other will take in the way he means it. I feel this way with patients sometimes. I know there is a different lens there and sometimes that difference feels palpable. I’m aware that the message I want to bring across might not land in the way that I’m seeking it to, and I have to remind myself need to stay curious and open to letting the situation unfold, not in the way I want it to unfold, but in the way that it needs to.

Gethen, is a planet of androgynous humans. They possess no gender, yet both genders at all times. During “kemmer” (their individual mating time of the month), their bodies can physically manifest female or male sexual organs depending on their mate of choice, in order to reproduce.

Of course gender was a topic of discussion on this evening, which in this day and age can be overwhelming, but it was anything but that. It was a lovely exploration of what the book called forward, which was a subtle commentary of the range of humanness we all have. Genly’s confusion with Gethenian mannerisms seemingly both masculine and feminine, constantly in flux, was interesting to read. The thought experiment was ‘if we grew up in a world where there was no predetermined traits to be held depending on your sexual organs at birth, what would that look like? How would you act?’ Of course culture, plays a role too, as we saw that different countries on this planet inhabit different mannerisms, but we also saw, emotional and sexual taboos (that we know on earth) across this planet dissipate.

All in all, this book was a fun exploration of relationships, perspective, imagination and human capacity. There’s love, there’s adventure, and there’s a beautiful story. Although slightly confusing at times, as it is told through a few different perspectives, it’s a read that I think you don’t want to miss.

The discussion is up for our Super Geek members for another week. Don’t forget to check it out!!

Our new book for this quarter is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, hosted by our community member !

See you there!

- Christine 🤓

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