Title: constellation of a woman
Summary: 'She learns five languages before she even knows what 'polyglot' means.' Uhura on her childhood journey towards being the communications officer we all know and love.
Author's Note: I have no clue what happened here. I just wanted to lay down something about renewed sexism in space exploration and Nyota being one of the woman pioneers, and somehow the whole thing kind of exploded in my face. And now it's kind of Uhura: A Memoir.
The name Nyota means star.
She sometimes wonders if it was meant as a hopeful prediction of her future, if her mother wanted her to choose a path to set herself amongst the stars. She's never asked. It seems too personal, even though it's her own name she's asking about. The thoughts of a woman about her newborn daughter, tiny and screaming, and the hopes she might have for a child- seems like something so intimate. And more: so far beyond her point of view. It's the thought of her mother as a woman before she had ever been born that shakes her, as all children are surprised and disturbed to think of a parent as a person individual of 'mommy' or 'daddy'.
She's seen that woman in recordings: someone younger than her mother and still strikingly familiar, sitting in a hospital bed and smiling tiredly. In a hospital shift and with her hair pulled back, she reaches out for the baby with wide, watchful eyes and flailing arms. "Nyota," she says, sing-song, quiet. A lullaby of her name. "My Nyota."
The United States of Africa are built through several civil wars and at least ten attempts at genocide. As a country, they are finally together, new and delicate- but Uhura knows they are strong. People tend to forget that here, it isn't all about blood and honor and war. That here, it is all about family. It's all about their history.
Even without the warfare, there are still the clans- families tied together by blood, hundreds strong.
She can list the names that go back centuries, and think of those who came before her. She is of the Bantu Nation of the United States of Africa, and heritage is treasured here. In Africa, she is grounded, feet planted in the earth, arms entwined with her mothers and sisters and brothers, mind weighed with all the history of her family. In her home, she is surrounded by a family that never stops growing, protected and supported by their love, raised on the treasure that is tradition and stories as old as clan itself. Even if she is far from house, Uhura is still connected with strings of books and photographs, woven in with constant calls to and from home.
Heritage is treasured where she is from. It's a rare trait in a race that so quickly flees its home to live among the stars.
As a child, she is precocious, which is an adult word for someone of a certain age (anyone young enough to be labeled a child) who approaches the uncomfortable position of knowing as much as the adults who teach her, and is not afraid to occasionally correct them. 'Precocious' can easily be substituted for unmanageable or even know-it-all, or it would if the child in question wasn't so constantly, perfectly polite. It's with respectfully phrased questions and honest, steady gaze that she questions and probes and eventually drives the teachers steadily insane with her desire to learn more, and her honest eagerness to correct the mistakes in their schoolbooks.
Uhura's mother is a xenoscientist and her father a politician in the growing Federation, after all. She has a duty to share what she knows with the class. Information is not meant to be held away from the people, after all- it's meant to be learned and used correctly.
At one point, an exasperated teacher asks the unwise-but-inevitable question of whether Miss Uhura would like to take over the curriculum for the day, as she seems to have hijacked the discussion.
None of the other children are really surprised as she thinks about it for a moment, then says that yes, she would, and gets to her feet like she really is ready to stand there and discuss the new Tellarite expansion treaties with them, wild hair and dust-smudged clothing and only eight years of life under her belt.
And so she does, with the teacher watching in amazed silence, and the next day a polite letter is sent home that states that their child is not properly challenged in her classes in recent politics and xenoscience, and they would like to offer more advanced classes at this time. It's all very polite while still maintaining a demanding tone: 'please get your daughter out of this class now, for the good of all involved.'
Her grandmother draws herself up proudly and calls up all of the relatives (which is no easy feat) to inform them of the great academic achievements of her granddaughter, and her mother smiles at her from the vidscreen in pride, and her father gives her a long and confusing speech that probably conveys the same feeling of pride, but phrased in longer words and halting sentences.
Uhura, of course, doesn't understand why such a fuss is being made over her knowing about topics practically discussed at the dinner table. It's common knowledge, she thinks.
Still, she takes the classes and listens to more detailed recounts of the Earth-Romulan war, and the recent, fragile trade routes in and out of the Neutral Zone. How they now are beginning to learn more of the Romulan languages, and of their strange similarities to Vulcan. How one of the Romulan dialects is almost exactly like archaic Vulcan. She listens to this in fascination, because it hasn't occurred to her before that you could trace a history using only the words a people spoke.
For a linguist, Africa is a paradise. The Niger-Congo family of languages native to where she lives contains over a thousand languages, with Bantu languages boasting at least over five hundred. She begs her dad to bring her tapes of some of the main ones, books to learn by, and listens to them with rapt fascination. The voices speak to her of people growing apart, of new cultures taking root. If she listens hard enough, she thinks maybe she can hear one original language, something they all share under all the words and sounds and sentences.
Uhura is taking tenth-form classes in political science and can speak Swahili and Yoruba and English and is almost getting there in conversational French (including some swear words) because of the girl who moved from Europe, and she's the best at racing there is. But she's still only a child and at some point, it's still not enough for her. At some point, it's like something just explodes inside, goes supernova in a flash of light and heat and noise, and she wants to move. It's when she feels like she's rooted herself too deeply here, and everything else is going so slow, and she might never fly.
Because that's what she wants, you know. Uhura wants to fly. It's why she runs so fast.
She's ten, and the weather is dry and dusty and parched. Uhura stands barefoot on cracked dirt and clay, and watches the air shimmer with heat, rippling the grass and rocks into smooth, watery shapes. Her feet are planted into the ground like she's trying to root her toes in the dirt, and she's trying to get her bearings like if she stands there long enough, she will become the needle in a compass and point true north: her home.
The race is different this time: after passing the children her age, she keeps running. Her feet eat the ground, devour the miles, and the cries of the children behind her sound like birds and then finally dwindle and fade. She keeps running at that horizon until finally there's no energy left to do anything but stand and wait for the world to catch up with her and take her home for a lecture and a gallon of an energy-rich beverage. (in lemon flavor, the only kind they sell here.)
When you're the fastest child your age, you always feel like there's a need to keep running.
"You were born with wings," her grandmother tells her, "But even the birds know when to land, and when to rest. Learn to be still, Nyota."
Uhura learns about planning and pacing by watching her older siblings play Oware. Watching each of them plot out the moves, counting the smooth glass pieces, clicking them in place into the hollows of the game board. Later, she sees three dimensional chess, she sees the black-and-white simplicity of Go, she learns tactical strategy games and her favorite games that deal with languages, but she always remembers glass counters slipping quickly and skillfully into wooden boards, furrowed brows and triumphant smiles. She remembers that drive is nothing without planning and skill, and so she dedicates herself to it.
Things are easier when they are laid out in lists, she finds. When they have timelines attached, and dates. She sets goals for herself and conquers them, if not easily, then at least efficiently. But school, which wasn't a challenge for her to begin with, flows by so quickly that she is left with far too much free time.
And this is where she places her language study: in the long hours where her brothers and sisters are playing and heading out to buy mangoes and bobotie or pizza with their friends. Here she pins a language like a butterfly to a mat, dissecting grammatical structure and tonal sounds and conjugation, and things like affixes and suffixes.
She learns five languages before she even knows what 'polyglot' means.
Once, her father gives her a book of Andorian-to-English phrases as a joke. She falls in love immediately with the writing, so curving and so completely different, and the way nothing in the language connects to anything she's read before. It's like she's just been handed a one hundred fifty piece puzzle after only putting together the kind with dogs and bunnies.
At some point, her parents look at her and her studying with their critical science and politics eyes and realize that she needs more than what a normal education can give her, even one with advanced classes. So, her mother sits her down and talks to her about coming with her, to the space station, and its school for the children of the scientists and engineers and officers. Tells her that there's more to learn there, that the classes are structured better, that she'll be immersed in different cultures and it will be beneficial to her development.
Uhura just wants to talk to an Andorian. She says she'd love to go.
It's everything she wants and more.
There aren't many women admitted into Starfleet Academy, despite acknowledged equality between the sexes. The advent of the age of space exploration hails in a new wave of gender roles- or rather, revives old prejudices to be administered in new ways. Some people attribute it to the first generation of children born in space, and the massive psychological surveys done on the emotional well being of those children, or the deaths in the wars between humans and the aliens they encountered. The high fatality rate of the Starfleet officers in general, and the not-so-hidden prejudice against 'mixed races', children being born of different genes than human. Whatever the reason, or perhaps because of all of them, women are discouraged from enrolling.
Not openly, of course. It's one of those unsaid cultural truths: women need to stay near the planet. Preferably on the planet, but if a woman must go the adventurous way and the standard military is not enough for them, then at least on one of the space stations. Certainly not on ships, traveling and exploring, where they could be subject to acts of war.
Not because they are weaker or inferior, but because they are truly more special, more in need of protection from becoming endangered. Women are smothered, then, in their own place as life givers, in the necessity of their sex's position in the reproductive cycle.
Uhura is one of the first flood of young women who stand up and say, 'No, this is not right.' One of the women who enlists and asks 'Why can't I? Why can't I save the galaxy? Why can't I seek out new life?"
"Why can't I be a hero?"
So she applies. When she knows what she wants, she takes the steps to achieve it. She hasn't changed that much from the girl who raced fast enough to catch the horizon. Except now, she knows she can fly.
Uhura takes along with her, aside from the practical suitcases of clothing and essentials: a painting and a wooden mask that are undeniably African, that book of Andorian-to-English phrases out of nostalgia value, and every lesson she has ever learned tucked inside her heart, safe and secure.
She sits on the shuttle and looks out to space that has no horizon, only vast and twinkling stars in a vacuum, and turns her mind forward, and dreams.