Writing in Secret Code

Writing in Secret Code

New revelations coming out of the January 6 Congressional committee hearings this past week raised the hair straight up off my head in ways even I had not anticipated.

The dead-serious, almost-execution of the vice president. The deep involvement of Ginny Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence. Fierce infighting among the Justices themselves as to whether to hear a Trump appeal that fostered the Big Lie that the election had been stolen. And so many Republicans, even inner-circle Trump Republicans, coming forth to testify against him–about his various states of intransigence, madness, and “lust to cling to power.”

People, we were closer to a total right-wing coup on 6 January than we knew, closer than ever before in the history of this Republic – except for right now, when we are closer still.

It set me to recalling how often we’ve had to resort to various forms of code to communicate. By we in this case I mean specifically women, although all oppressed people have always spoken in forms of code. They can do this (and have to) because they know the oppressors’ ways far better than he knows theirs. They know how to turn stereotypes inside out, how to “pass,” how to live entire lives undercover, how to allay the oppressor’s fears. I’ve written before about the cross-cultural use of so-called domestic arts as code, how clever and subtle they are, and how they almost invariably escape notice, because they are regarded as easily dismissible.

For example, the arpilleras in Chile during the long military dictatorship: the arpilleras were—are—textiles woven and embroidered with cheerful little scenes of village women going about their business, baskets on their heads, water jugs in their hands or balanced on their hips. The colors are bright and jolly. Who would know that these contained code for the Chilean underground?

Or the Palestinian embroidery done by women sitting quietly, sewing into the cloth decorations for pillow cases, skirts, bags, eyeglass cases, etc.–colors of the Palestinian flag — forbidden by the Israeli occupying authority during the Intifada, but there for all to see, if they knew how to look.

Or the aboriginal peoples of Australia who map both time and geography in their songs and legends of the Dreamtime. Or the rice paddies cut into the sides of mountains in the northern Cordilleras region of the Philippines, where the rice paddies are planted in English so as to be seen by airplane passengers but likely no one else: spelling out words like revolution.

Or here in our own American South during the hideous enslavement, when African women held innocuous quilting bees (you know, just women getting together to sew and chat and gossip?), except that the quilts depicted routes that enslaved people could take toward freedom. The same goes for the great spirituals whose lyrics about “crossing Jordan,” “swinging low,” and more were code for ways to escape slavery en route to the North.

And now we have “Hidden Letters,” a deeply moving, nuanced, witty, accessible documentary about Nushu, the ancient secret language invented by Chinese women who were banned from learning how to read and write, so created their own code. In it, at least, they could speak plainly, about rape or battery, arranged marriages, loneliness, grief. They wrote to each other, not to men (who couldn’t read it anyway), seeking comfort, validation, and solidarity with other women, with their sisters–much like contemporary women do in consciousness-raising groups or talk circles or even book clubs. They did this to counter the prevailing propaganda that women must hate each other, compete with each other, don’t trust each other. Yet despite that worldwide propaganda, women still come together. This is dangerous to patriarchy. Comparing notes is an incendiary act.

Male supremacy necessitates the individual isolation of women, the compartmentalization, the silence. Because if you don’t have that outlet, if you don’t somehow, someway, somewhere, create that code, forge a language that those in power over you cannot decipher, then it’s just you–alone. And then you will, simply, go mad.

I think about this quite a bit lately, as the words from Washington D.C. and Mar-el-Lago and Wall Street ring more and more ominously. I think about this, because words are all I have. I think about my late, lovely friend Ursula Le Guin, who wrote “words are my matter.” And they matter, they do. I think of how another, recently lost friend, Toni Morrison, wrote an entire brilliant novel in defiant code: a novel in which she never once noted the race of the major female characters, but left it to us to determine. I think about the wit that code demands, and the wisdom. I think about poetry, the rock on which I stand, which is still the ultimate form of code: metaphor, density, distillation.

These days, perhaps we would all do well to think more about this subject, hmmm?