Daily Archives: September 16, 2015

Code Switching in the Fantasy World of “Court of Fives”

In Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, Jessamy must navigate between different cultures, classes, and languages, as she competes in an athletic tournament and struggles to save her family.

By Kate Elliott

elliott-courtoffivesCode-switching refers to the practice of switching back and forth between two or more languages, or between two dialects of the same language. When I was a child, we spoke both English and Danish in our house because my mother is Danish and my father Danish-American. Out shopping my mother would often switch into Danish if she wanted to say something she didn’t want the people around us to understand.

Code-switching also refers to switching between “identities,” in both cultural and interpersonal situations.

My family has lived in the state of Hawaii for thirteen years. Originally settled by Polynesian seafarers (and later illegally annexed by the USA), Hawaii became an increasingly mixed community in the 19th and 20th centuries. Because English was the second language of many of the immigrants but also the only one they all had in common, a creole English called “pidgin” developed that incorporated elements of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. (Here’s a 4 minute excerpt from a documentary on pidgin by my friend Marlene Booth and her co-director Kanalu Young: Hawaii Pidgin The Voice of Hawaii.)

While it is absolutely common today to hear people switching from Standard English to pidgin and back again, the use (or non-use) of pidgin also became a marker of status and assimilation as well as a means of discrimination. Decades ago, schools in Hawaii were segregated in part according to speech. My friend Gin recalls how her older sisters schooled her in Standard English when she was five so she could “test into” the “academic” elementary school instead of the school where the pidgin speakers were sent. This is a form of code switching as well.

In Court of Fives, code-switching is a constant part of the heroine’s life. I wanted to explore what it would be like for a girl who not only code switches between languages but also between cultural expectations and sub-cultures.

Jessamy’s parents come from different ethnicities, Saroese and Efean (also called Patrons and Commoners in the book). She knows both languages, is fluent in both, and can switch easily between the two in contrast to most of the population, who only speak either Saroese or Efean depending on their ethnicity.

But because Efea is a conquered country, and because the Saroese are the conquerers, she also must negotiate a far trickier form of code-switching: That between the class divide created by the privileged and powerful Patrons and the conquered and looked-down-upon Commoners.

Raised by a Patron father, Jessamy and her three sisters are expected to behave like Patron girls in their speech and their conduct in both private and public. The eldest and youngest sister look enough like their father that they can “pass” as Patron girls, but the situation for Jessamy and her twin Bettany is particularly complex because they are obviously mixed. To look at them is to see they have one Saroese and one Efean parent, a pairing not approved of and fairly uncommon in this society because it is literally illegal for a Patron to marry a Commoner. At the same time, even when Jes speaks Efean to Commoners, they can tell by her looks and speech and behavior clues that she “acts like a Patron,” and they see these ways of acting as pretentious and delusional (because what is the point of acting like a Patron when no Patron will actually accept you as one).

So, yes, I can and do describe Court of Fives as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy society inspired by ancient Egypt.” It is definitely a fantasy novel about sisterhood and family loyalty in the wake of treachery, a conquered country ruled within a rigid social hierarchy, a popular game called the Fives that’s more than it seems, and one girl’s challenge to run the Fives even though it is forbidden to her.

But embedded in that story is a girl caught between, who code switches as a constant and regular part of her life, and doesn’t quite have a place in either of her parent cultures. Jessamy has to find her own path, and it’s not going to be an easy road.


kateelliottKate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. She is the author of over twenty science fiction and fantasy novels, including her YA debut Court of Fives, as well as Cold Magic, Spirit Gate, King’s Dragon, Jaran, and her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. A new epic fantasy, Black Wolves, arrives in November. She lives in Hawaii. She lives in Hawaii with her spouse, paddles with outrigger canoe club Ka Māmalahoe, and nurses along an aging schnauzer. Her website is at www.kateelliott.com.

Court of Fives is now available.

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Don’t forget! You can enter to win Court of Fives and four other wonderful YA SFF novels at our Fantasy & Science Fiction Month giveaway (deadline Oct. 6)