Human language is the source of human consciousness, at least as far as we understand it. Things “exist” to us — whether those things are objects, theories, or abstract notions — only so far as (1) our ability to perceive them, and (2) our ability to describe them with words. Which is silly, when we think about it, because words are, on a base level, nothing more than silly symbols and sounds made by the human mouth. Words are inherently meaningless, other than the meaning that we connect to these words — and that meaning is what makes them powerful. Words are a beautiful contradiction. This doesn’t mean that “truth” doesn’t exist, because it does, but it does mean that how we perceive truth is directly connected to whatever language we speak, as well as how our culture perceives the words within that language.
The word “horse” means nothing, other than being a mouthful of sounds, unless we decide that “horse” is a descriptor for the real life animal. How we think of a horse, then, is directly connected to the word we use. For example, in the English language, our amusing tendency to associate other objects with parts of the human body: e.g., the supposed “legs” of a chair, or the “heart” of an artichoke.
Language is the power that fuels the human species. It’s the source of how we think, why we think, and how we retain memories. But at the same time, for those who struggle with communication, language can become an unbreakable wall between them and the rest of society.
The limitations and surreal nature of human perception is something I like examining in my writing, as readers of Pale Highway will attest to. I’ll be delving even deeper into this topic in my next novel (Novel #3), when it comes out. But when I approached this subject for the writing of my short little fantasy novelette, Clay Tongue, I specifically wanted to delve into language, communication, and the challenges faced by those who struggle with it.
To do this, I tried to link two different struggles, that would seem quite different on the surface, but actually have a lot in common: the pain of an old man who develops aphasia after suffering from a stroke, and the shyness of a little girl who has trouble speaking up in front of people. Both of them know what they want to say, but both of them don’t know how to say it.
In Clay Tongue, these characters — young Katie Mirowitz and her grandfather — have a tight bond, and this shared communication difficulty is what brings them together.
When it comes to the grandfather, I was inspired by the same nursing home experience that fueled Pale Highway. As a caregiver in the dementia unit, I worked with many people who’d been afflicted with aphasia. Scientists, lawyers, artists, mechanics, pharmacy technicians — people who suddenly, without warning, had their ability to communicate robbed from them. It was heartbreaking to see, when someone so desperately knows what they want and their brain won’t let them say it in a way that others can understand.
As far as Katie’s shyness, well… that goes back to my own childhood, where I myself had a lot of painful social anxiety, and an immense difficulty with getting words across. Though socializing comes easily to me now, those early pains never quite fade from memory. The secret to comfortable social interaction isn’t something you can take a class for, or find tricks to get around; you just have to learn it the hard way. Though it becomes easier with age, that’s no comfort to a little kid who still hasn’t figured out how to respond to a seemingly simple question like “how are you?” without feeling treacherously embarrassed.
With Clay Tongue, I wanted to examine this aspect within both characters: to delve into the secrets of communication, to show their struggles. And then, at the same time, to show that even in strange and indescribable personal battles such as these ones, there is always hope.
From the author of the award-winning Pale Highway and the radio play Something in the Nothing comes a short fantasy of love, shyness, and the secrets of human communication.
Katie Mirowitz is a small little girl with an even smaller little voice. She possesses a deep love for her grandfather, who suffers from aphasia after a bad stroke cuts loose the part of his brain that processes verbal language. When Katie uncovers a miraculous secret inside the pages of her grandfather’s old journal, as well as an ancient key, she goes out into the woods in search of answers — hoping to uncover a mythical being that, if it exists, may just have the ability to grant wishes.