Friday, January 18, 2013

Our 100th Famous Speech Friday: Ursula K. Leguin's "We are Volcanoes"

I had an entirely different speech cued up for today, the 100th time I've posted a "Famous Speech Friday" post. And then writer Becky Ham, who also has contributed to this series, sent me a quote from a 1986 Bryn Mawr commencement speech by novelist Ursula K. Leguin. It's considered among the 10 most memorable commencement speeches, and has special significance for this blog.

There's symmetry in this choice for the 100th post: Leguin was featured in one of the earliest FSF posts for her "left-handed commencement address." Both speeches date from the early 1980s, and both focus on women and public speaking. It's both fitting and explosive. I've highlighted in bold the quote Becky sent me in this excerpt:
I know that many men and even women are afraid and angry when women do speak, because in this barbaric society, when women speak truly they speak subversively--they can't help it: if you're underneath, if you're kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That's what I want--to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don't know the power in you--I want to hear you.
"We are volcanoes" might be one of the best metaphors I've ever heard for women trying to find their voices. It conveys power and latency, a smoldering passion, the ability to be mistaken as something quiet and benign, the possibility of a dramatic mark on the universe, and the power to make permanent and lasting change: "...all the maps change. There are new mountains." And she does it, LeGuin style, in a scant 23 words, none wasted. They're words worth remembering, since, even today, "many men and even women are afraid and angry when women do speak."

The full text is preserved in the collection of speeches and essays by LeGuin called Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, and here on the Bryn Mawr website. LeGuin walks her listeners through the power of public speaking, and how, for most of civilization, it has been changed and dominated by male voices, which she calls "the father tongue."  But where she describes and catalogs women's voices and ways of speaking, this speech resonates:
It is a language always on the verge of silence and often on the verge of song. It is the language stories are told in. It is the language spoken by all children and most women, and so I call it the mother tongue, for we learn it from our mothers, and speak it to our kids. I'm trying to use it here in public where it isn't appropriate, not suited to the occasion, but I want to speak it to you because we are women and I can't say what I want to say about women in the language of capital M Man. 
There's much more to this long and impassioned speech for you to find for yourself, so please give it a thorough read. I wish I had video to share, but I'll settle for what you can learn from it:
  • Respect the audience: Much of this speech looks at how public speech has become a source of power for men, but LeGuin urges her audience to seize it for themselves and also reassures them that she will not abuse that power. "But it is such an authority that I possess for the brief - we all hope it is decently brief - time I speak to you - I have no right to speak to you. What I have is the responsibility you have given me to speak to you." It's an approach more speakers should keep in mind.
  • Use poetry to forge connections: Quoting Sojourner Truth's line, "Now I will do a little singing. I have not heard any singing since I came here," LeGuin uses poems by women poets to illustrate the "mother tongue" language that challenges public ways of speaking. You, too, might consider using poems to connect with your audience.
  • Write your speech the way people talk: LeGuin's an elegant writer, and those skills can be seen here. But she wrote this speech, all about language and speaking, so that it reflected the way people talk, which lends it credibility, immediacy, and surprise. There's nothing simple about this intellectual speech, but it includes real conversational language as a strong connector with the audience, bringing the ivory tower a bit closer to the real world the graduates are about to enter.
  • Sound the call to action: "We are volcanoes" and "That's what I want -- to hear you erupting" unite the audience and give them a charge to follow in vivid and dramatic words. It builds upon her lyrical retelling of the history of men and women and the ways of public speaking and private speaking that have evolved over centuries, and how they affect our homes and workplaces today. It's as good a short history as you'll find about women's issues in public speaking.
What do you think of this famous speech and our Famous Speech Friday series?

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