in another language
would be a different poem
I read these lines by Ana Martins Marques translated (by Alison Entrekin) into English from the original Portuguese, suggesting that it is already another poem. Peeling away the self-conscious context of translation, I reappropriate the poem in the name of multilingualism and ask myself to verify the sentiment; would a poem I wrote in English be a different poem had I written it in Afrikaans? Or, could the same poem be written in a different language at all? What if only one language ever exists at the instant of composition and that language is a highly personal mélange, the language abstract and without a name? The moment languages stand side-by-side, they are ranked—first language, second language, mother tongue, foreign language—whereas the fantasy of the multilingual writer is the complete absorption and customization of an array of vocabularies, a personalized anthropomorphism of language. In a circuitous way, multilingualism can also be defined, then, as being independently unilingual.
Writing this conclusion to my month-long tenure at The Town Crier on “Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective,” I reread all the essays chronologically, a consecutive growth of content. Considering the overarching theme, the writers who published work this month have all been grappling in one way or another with bilingual or multilingual identity, and how different languages modify, interact with, and act on their personhoods and their writing. Interestingly, as I progress through the essays, I notice small similarities predicated on plurality. That is, multilingualism, within the limits of its inherent multiplicity, condenses to correspondences through the repetition of homogeneous concerns. Revisit, for example, the following pileup of sentences that I have culled from the mouths of the essayists:
Oana Avasilichioaei: As distinct languages rub against each other, traffic their vocabularies, strain their syntaxes, and forage their phonemes, they form an interstitial linguistic space—an in-between polylingual space.
Guadalupe Muro: Writing in a foreign language widens the gap between reality and language … Gaps in the heart of language, gaps between languages, cultural gaps, emotional gaps, social gaps.
Ndinda Kioko: It is a language that allows me to be in the in-between, to inhabit the tongues that I choose for myself … It is beyond the limits of English, Kiswahili, and Kikamba.
Daphné B: Mais c’est sûr que tu ne feras jamais partie d’un ou de l’autre, pis moi je me sens toujours comme entre les deux.
Cia Rinne: Still, operating on the border of several languages allows the texts to retain a certain abstract character.
Jihyun Rosel Kim: a mimicker of the language, looking from the outside, constantly fretting at the edges.
“In-between.” “In the in-between.” Add to this list Rosi Braidotti’s “polyglot as nomad in between languages.” In relation to multilingual identity, Braidotti introduces the notion of “nomadic subjectivity,” suggesting that the ability to exist within different language spheres, and particularly to move freely between them, endows a polyglot with a uniquely nonpartisan, yet also distanced critical consciousness, breaking free from a more traditional unilateral mode of thought; a linguistic identity predicated on being neither definitively here nor there, but rather “in-between.” Basing my thoughts on this month’s essays, it appears that this “in-between” manifests itself in gradations of self-confidence and acceptance when it comes to ownership of multilingual identity.
On one side of the spectrum is the sense that the polyglot is marginalized, even deracinated, within a dominantly English environment. These are narratives in which English is absorbed at the cost of a distinct mother tongue; the learning curve toward English fluency being so steep that it impinges upon and even erases the first language.
I have never heard of anyone, in our day and age, unlearning English.
There is a persistent nostalgia for the mother tongue; a slippage of self in relation to that first language; a curiosity to understand it more fully, while simultaneously being socially aligned with it, positioned as the “other” existing within an otherwise unilingual anglophone community.
Jihyun Rosel Kim: These days, I listen to Korean podcasts in search of the casualness of frank adult conversation, an attitude I erroneously relegated to one language. Eighteen years after arriving in Canada, I am searching once again for fluency, but for fluency in my mother tongue.
Ndinda Kioko: In re-reading Ken Walibora and revisiting other Kiswahili texts, I realize that I can no longer write Kiswahili or Kikamba as well as I used to. In my pursuit of English, I have moved away from these other languages. There is nothing but remorse, and so I begin to collect old Kiswahili texts to feel closer to these languages.
The coexistence of a mother tongue with English is reformatted into a hierarchy so that the first language helps to shape and diversify the speaker’s cultural consciousness, while also retreating to the background as English takes over as the dominant, functional language of everyday use. I think it is important to recognize that, while it is relatively common for a mother tongue to grow rusty, I have never heard of anyone, in our day and age, unlearning English.
Within this context of international anglicization, English colonizes bilingualism and multilingualism. Acknowledging, of course, the excellent content on multilingual writing that came together here throughout October, it is also significant that all of the contributors—perhaps with the exception of Guadalupe Muro’s highly editorial writing process—wrote from the privileged position of English fluency. Some writers learned English early on, others struggled more to acquire it later in life, but either way, they have been able to write a 2000-word essay ranging from the intricately personal to the political and theoretical. Take me as an example: Afrikaans is my mother tongue, but English followed very closely on its heels; like a twin birth, English is my second baby by way of an almost negligible gap, a lingual simultaneity, not spoken at home growing up, but comfortably nested on my tongue. Writing in English—while languages coexist democratically with an equal capability—is a choice, as Dominique Bernier-Cormier points out, “It is a choice I have to make everyday, a choice I have to re-live, re-consider, and re-assume every time I sit down to write.” A choice that is made repeatedly, however, text after text, poem after poem, can unbalance the “in-between.” As Cia Rinne expresses, “This is problematic: the augmented use of English, in writing on the border of art and literature, contributes to a new monolingualization that multilingual writing would be expected to oppose.” To politicize the sentiment, English settles and soon controls.
Perhaps the most affirming iteration of multilingual identity, or the fullest acceptance of writing in English from a multilingual perspective, is the attempt at writing one’s own English, constructing a personal language, which combines influences from different language backgrounds to form a verbal space in which a particular writer feels idiosyncratically at home. This includes not settling (a reversal of the colonial diction), not allowing grammar, geography, or the arbitrary line between languages to impose divisive decisions when it comes to expression, but rather to form words according to independent concerns.
Oana Avasilichioaei: The English with which I write … is an English that rejects any authority of “authenticity” and instead revels in its bastard status because my context has never been and will never be monolingual.
Ndinda Kioko: I want to inhabit English in a way that allows my stories to stay alive and feel at home.
Dominique Bernier-Cormier: Do I write with a French accent? Yes. Will I ever write like a native English speaker? I hope not.
Daphné B: I don’t want to be politically correct with my French.
When Marie Darsigny mentions Franglais or Geneviève Robichaud alludes to Chiac, they introduce a radical conflation of languages, “a French dialect that has English integrated into it.” While these examples could be interpreted as ideal modes of multilingualism, a complete linguistic merging, I want to muddy the waters and also suggest that one’s own language does not necessarily have to be composite. Perhaps the almost mystical “in-between” of multilingual consciousness is a place where life’s bombardment of influences on language, as well as the impact of multiple languages on an individual, can coexist without difference, not juxtaposed, but not conjoined either. The in-between language, utopian and abstract, is the honest host of an individual writer’s creative expression. Similarly idealistic, Rosi Braidotti offers one of the most beautiful definitions—both liberating and inclusive—of multilingual writing and of writing period, when she acknowledges that “writers can be polyglots within the same language; you can speak English and write many different Englishes … Becoming a polyglot in your own mother tongue: that’s writing.”
Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing alternately in Montreal and Cape Town. Her chapbook, Wax Lyrical, was released from Anstruther Press, 2015, and a full-length collection of multilingual poems is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press. She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series, writes reviews for Broken Pencil Magazine, The Montreal Review of Books and The Rusty Toque, and is currently employed at Vallum: Contemporary Poetry magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ToMakePoesis