TITLE: A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1)
AUTHOR: Arkady Martine
GENRE: Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: March 26, 2019
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
When I was sixteen, my parents asked me what I wanted for my eighteenth birthday. Tradition in my country dictates that my family throw me an elaborate debut, as one of my maternal aunts had done for her eldest and second eldest daughters. My parents were not so traditional as that, so decided to give me a choice. I could have the debut, if I chose, or they could get me a car.
I think it says a lot about how well my parents knew me, that they’d offered me this choice. I’d already been involved in the debuts of my two elder female cousins, so I was entirely aware of how hectic and draining such events could be, even if one was on the periphery. And since I wasn’t particularly interested in such large parties, and was an introvert, to boot, I think my parents knew I wouldn’t opt for the debut, hence the offer of a car. But I don’t think they were expecting me to suggest a third choice: a European tour, on my own, so I could “see the world.”
Now, in the wake of reading Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, I’ve begun to ask myself a question: why was it that when I said I wanted to see “the world”, I had equated that phrase to Europe and the UK? The world, after all, is more than just Europe; I’ve traveled locally, and my country is part of the world. I’ve traveled internationally, and Hong Kong and the United States are both part of the world (though the latter does seem to exist in a world of its own, sometimes). But my eighteen-year-old self had said: “I want to see the world; let me go to Europe on my own.” So why the equivalency? Why did I think of the hub of Empire when I thought of “the world”?
The main character of A Memory Called Empire, Mahit Dzmare, thinks a similar thought as she arrives in the City, the heart of the Teixcalaan Empire. Mahit is an ambassador from Lsel Station, which is the hub of a collection of mining stations that has, so far, managed to remain independent from Teixcalaan - a trend they would definitely like to continue. Aside from continuing to ensure Lsel’s independence, Mahit must also find out what happened to her predecessor, Yskandr Agahvn. After all, it was Teixcalaan that asked for a new Lsel Ambassador, and the only reason they would do so was if they found the previous one unsatisfactory - or if something more unsavoury had happened to said ambassador. Assisted by her Imperial liaison, Three Seagrass, and Yskandr’s woefully out-of-date imago (a memory record contained in a machine implanted in another person’s head), Mahit sets herself to accomplishing those two aforementioned goals - and in doing so, stumbles into a conspiracy that leads to the very heart of the Empire itself, and to the secrets that Lsel has tried to keep out of Teixcalaan’s grasp.
Some readers who are accustomed to the action-heavy slant of the most popular science fiction movies might think that there really isn’t much happening in this novel, at least at first. There are no grand spaceship battles here, no laser-sword duels or phaser-fire exchanges. Instead, a large portion of the plot involves following Mahit around as she tries to figure out what, exactly, her predecessor managed to do before she arrived, and then later, figuring out the circumstances behind why she was sent to Teixcalaan at all. The focus is more on solving the mysteries that Mahit encounters, and how she adjusts to living in a place she has always longed to go, while trying to represent and protect the interests of where she has come from. All of this is filtered through Mahit’s mind, since she is the person narrating the story, and is peppered with her observations of and emotions about what is going on around her, and the people she’s associating with.
Despite lacking anything resembling typical sci-fi movie values of action for a significant portion of the story, the plot still moves along at an admirable pace. Tension is slowly built up over the course of the novel, with little hints scattered here and there for the reader to pick up and ponder, just as Mahit does. The author utilizes the limitations of Mahit’s point-of-view exceptionally well to build up the sense of mystery and ratchet up the tension as Mahit uncovers what is really going on, and begins to realize what is truly at stake and what she may need to do.
While all of the above makes this novel an excellent story of political intrigue, what I enjoyed most about it were Mahit’s thoughts about Teixcalaanli culture and language, and her place (or lack thereof) in it. Consider the following excerpt, which is from the beginning of the novel:
What’s down there, [Mahit] thought. For you.
<The world>, said her imago, who had been Ambassador from Lsel in the City when he was still a living person and not part of a long chain of live memory. He said it in the Teixcalaanli language, which made it a tautology: the world for “world” and “the word for “the City” were the same, as was the word for “empire”. It was impossible to specify, especially in the high imperial dialect. One had to note the context.
Mahit frequently thinks in these terms: of Teixcalaanli not as a casual spoken language, but as something more elevated, more literary. Throughout the novel it’s pointed out that to be a Teixcalaanli citizen is something to aspire to, something to want to be, and Mahit’s observations and thoughts on its language and the literature written in that language are along those same lines. To embrace a culture’s language and literature is to embody that culture’s ideals, to want to be a part of that culture.
But it soon becomes clear to Mahit that, no matter how much she loves Teixcalaanli culture, no matter how much she embraces it and immerses herself in it, she will never be Teixcalaanli. This is made clear in the following excerpt:
…Mahit knew two things: first, that if she wanted to take a turn at this game, all she needed to do was step forward into the circle, and someone would challenge her, same as any other Teixcalaanlizlim—and second, that she would fail at it completely. … She’d spent half her life studying Teixcalaanli literature and she was just barely good enough to follow this game, recognize a few of the referents. If she tried herself she’d—oh, they wouldn’t laugh. They’d be indulgent. Indulgent of the poor, ignorant barbarian playing so hard at civilization and—
Mahit slipped back, away from the circle of clever young people...and tried not to feel like she was going to cry. There wasn’t any point in crying over this. ... One department or another, clamoring. She’d read that poem in her collections, on the Station, and thought she’d understood. She hadn’t.
On the surface level, this is a key moment of character development for Mahit, who up until this point has been convinced that she can be Teixcalaanli enough if she tries. But in this moment she realises that, to these people, born in the heart of the Empire, she will always be a barbarian, an outsider. Her mastery of their culture means nothing - but then again, can she truly “master” the culture when she was never born into it to begin with? She can try to fit in, as best as she can, and she might find a space for herself within it, even find someone she can love and who will love her back, but no one will ever believe that she is genuinely Teixcalaanli.
And is assimilation really what Mahit wants? As Ambassador one of her main goals is to maintain Lsel’s independence, to prevent it from being absorbed into the Empire. But there was a time when she wanted otherwise:
(Some other life. Some other life when she’d come here alone, imagoless in truth, and—studied, wrote poetry, learned the rhythms of other ways of speaking that didn’t come out of a textbook. Some other life, but the walls between lives felt so thin sometimes.)
The above was Mahit’s dream, when she’d still been studying in the hopes of becoming, if not Lsel’s Ambassador to Teixcalaan, then of taking the citizenship exams and finding her place that way. But by the time she thinks the above thoughts, she’s already well on her way to deciding that maybe that’s not what she wants, either. The dream of the life she could have had and the reality of the life she is currently living show her that, while she can’t ever be Teixcalaanli, she can never really be wholly Stationer, either:
Mahit felt that way now… Very distant. A certain kind of free.
Not, in the end, quite home.
It is these questions of belonging and not-belonging, of loving that which can erase one’s culture, that is the beating heart of this novel, and where I derive most of my enjoyment reading it. To be sure, the plot itself is very well done, but it is how that plot plays with these themes of imperialism and colonisation as seen through the lenses of language and literature that made me think back to that time when I was sixteen, when I thought of Europe as “the world”. Like Mahit, I, too, wished to see the world: not only because I was a teenager and because I wanted to travel without my parents’ supervision, but because it was a place I had spent a lot of time reading about while I was growing up. When I said I wanted to see “the world”, I meant that I wanted to stand in the shattered sunlight streaming through the stained glass of Notre Dame de Paris; to drift lazily amidst the waterways of Venice on a gold-gilt afternoon; to tap my toes against the bustle-humming cobblestones of London as I decided which play to see. I wanted to see the places and experience things I’d only ever read about, to follow in the footsteps of the many, many writers whose works I’d read as I was growing up.
But just like Mahit, who I am now is not who I was when I was sixteen, nor even when I was twenty-one, which is when I took the trip. Life experience plus education have since added nuances to my simplistic enjoyment of European and Anglo-Saxon culture, forcing me to see the shadows created by the light. Now, when I look up at the grand churches of Italy and France, I think not only of their beauty and grand history, but also about the immense harm Roman Catholicism has done to women, queer people, and colonised cultures. When I think about wandering London’s streets, I think not only of the history, but also how much damage the British Empire has done to its colonies. Worse, the harm caused by Empire does not merely cut deep, but lingers, continuing to do damage in the present. I look at my country and its history and wonder: who might I be now, if Europeans had not gone around the world, stealing entire countries and crushing entire cultures? Empire (in the form of Spain and later the United States) destroyed so much of my people’s identity. Sometimes, looking back, it feels like whatever was there before Empire arrived on my country’s shores has been completely erased, reduced to cinders, near-useless for the process of building one’s identity, whether as a person or as a country.
And yet, perversely, I still have affection for Empire. Like Mahit, I am immersed in the language and literature of Empire: of English, which, as the main language of the United States and of the internet, may be considered the most imperial of languages. I read and write largely in English; indeed, I feel more comfortable using English than my native language. The way I view everything, from myself to the world around me, is influenced by what I have read - most of which is in English.
But, knowing what I know now, I try not to get swept away in all of it. Nowadays, I try to be more aware, more circumspect of the things I read, and try to be careful not to paint too perfect an image in my mind - though I admit, I do still slip into those daydreams sometimes. I am still very fond of European and Anglo-Saxon culture, still sometimes dream of living in Florence or London, but I do try to remember not to burnish the idylls too brightly.
In light of all of that, reading about Mahit’s conflicting feelings about Teixcalaanli culture and language is, to me, like looking into a mirror of my own thoughts and feelings about my relationship with Empire. It is a relationship that is complex and complicated, and more often than not it can feel as though I belong nowhere: “Not, in the end, quite home”, to quote the novel. This might seem terribly bleak, but these are very important questions, not least because they touch me so deeply. I do not want to shy away from such questions just because they do not make me smile - indeed, I think that makes them even more important.
Overall, A Memory Called Empire is an entertaining read, but for readers who have a history with Empire - those from former colonies, for example, especially those who have traveled abroad or have immigrated to Europe or North America - will find that this book may touch a deep, perhaps unaddressed, part of their experience. Mahit’s thoughts about imperialism and colonialism, and their relationship with language, literature, and culture, all ask the reader to look inward, and to consider their relationship with Empire - not just in the overt history they have been taught, but on a more personal, more intimate level. As I have said, these are very hard questions, but they are important ones, and I am glad the novel made me ask them of myself. I hope other readers will consider sharing the experience.