Klara du Plessis
In a climate of multiculturalism, hybridity, and interdisciplinarity—interestingly, as I type, these exact words are underlined; apparently the world via spellcheck isn’t ready for diversity—a phobic reaction to a more holistic, multilingual or translational approach to language in literature is unexpectedly common.
In an interview for Close Listening with polyglot, multilingual writer and translator Erín Moure, Charles Bernstein abrasively states more than inquires: “The one thing I don’t understand is, isn’t English good enough, isn’t it good enough for you? Why do you have to seek out those other languages?” Composed and to the point, Moure replies: “Those other languages are part of me. English is only a part of me. I don’t really seek them out, they’re already there, they make demands on me.”
I’m transported back to the early-2000s in South Africa—a country with 11 official languages—when a 17-year-old Jackie Nagtegaal wrote a predominantly Afrikaans novel called Daar’s vis in die punch” (roughly translated: There’s fish in the punch). At the time, it was highly controversial in the local literary scene mostly because the language, some argued, was impure: an untidy mix of Afrikaans and English, a prime example of lax education and a slapdash attitude to storytelling craft. In this novel, Nagtegaal employed English for more than a smattering of teenage cool, but rather as the stylistic crux of each sentence: an English verb, an English idiomatic expression, the emphasis somehow on English and only framed by Afrikaans commonplaces. Take, for example: “Kyk, man, almal weet daar is something dreadfully fishy hier op aarde” (roughly translated with the original English in italics: “Look, man, everyone knows there’s something dreadfully fishy all around us”).
“Kyk, man, almal weet daar is something dreadfully fishy hier op aarde”
Almost two decades later, Esmé Weijun Wang released her début novel The Border of Paradise, which sports sections of untranslated Chinese characters amongst the primarily English narrative. In an essay she wrote for Literary Hub, she explains: “In deciding to keep certain parts of my book in untranslated Chinese, I was making a commitment to including some readers and likely excluding most others; I was also making a commitment to the possibility of being unintelligible … I frequently asked myself whether or not I was being insufferable.” Considering her apologetic account, one would assume that the narrative is maliciously couched in code, that every reader who doesn’t speak Mandarin or Hokkien would be obliged to skip over pages and pages of incomprehensible text, missing out on large chunks of intrigue. On the contrary, when I flipped casually through the hardcopy, I initially couldn’t find a single example of the promised Chinese. It took much closer scrutiny to discover the small phrases slipped in selectively here and there.
The major difference between these two examples is that Nagtegaal’s audience would almost certainly have been able to understand both Afrikaans and English whereas the majority of Wang’s North American audience probably won’t be able to read Chinese. The former debate focuses on unilingual writing as somehow superior in principal, whereas the latter questions the practicality of a linear, communicative structure leading from reading to understanding.
As I started writing multilingual poetry a few years ago—oscillating between English, Afrikaans, and French—I asked myself, what is the exact ratio of languages at which a turning point occurs and a text is no longer written in a single lingo? What happens to an English text if I add a few Afrikaans words for local flavour? Or if I add a few Afrikaans phrases to play around with sound? Or if I add a few Afrikaans paragraphs to compete with English in conveying information? What if the entire text is in Afrikaans, but disseminated in an Anglophone context? Does a text even have to include more than one language to be labelled multilingual?
As English embraces the poet’s mouth, other languages quiver in anticipation, to be released, to speak.
Poet Rahat Kurd writes in English, yet her words seem to be infused with a latent knowledge of other tongues. In an essay for The Walrus, she explains her linguistic background: “As a child, growing up among the sprawl of my extended family in southern Ontario, I was expected to excel in English at school, recite in formal Arabic at the mosque, and speak fluent Urdu and Punjabi at home, where Kashmiri also made frequent visits.” Now, as she tries to learn Farsi as an adult and teaches her son the Urdu alphabet while he attends French immersion school, it seems clear that writing in English is a self-conscious monolingualism that doesn’t always sit easy. In her poem “Married to English,” for example, there is an underlying progression of growing resentment towards English. The poem starts out with a happy union:
From your moss-pelted north face
and your pearled grey Junes, English,
I learn to love your sunny hesitations better
than if I were driven to seek the shade
from gorgeous Urdu’s melting afternoons.
English, how perfectly wedded I am to you.
The idea of being married to a language insinuates a remove, however. English is not the language she inherently associates with, but rather the language she has been connected to officially. It is the institutionalized sheen of respectability, the surface which can be shattered as “I whisper tender Arabic curses / over lies you swore were sterling; I console myself / with half-remembered Farsi endearments.” Kurd doesn’t offer the reader direct access to the expletives or endearments, but they linger in imagined onomatopoeia. Words without form or sound are somehow present, embodied by their association to the poet. By the end of the poem, English, through the metaphor of marriage, is destabilized, or put differently, the potential of multilingualism is strengthened: “you fool, / believing, with your tongue in my mouth, / I can never say I’m leaving.” As English embraces the poet’s mouth, other languages quiver in anticipation, to be released, to speak.
I want to suggest tentatively that having the ability to communicate in more than one language can translate to an intuitive if dormant form of multilingual writing. Even if the person in question composes only in English, this writing is uniquely suffused with a knowledge of other grammars. Personal histories of language-learning infiltrate and enrich English. Whether English is the mother tongue or mastered later in life, it now stands in relation to other languages, absorbing context—personal or political—rather than being the unquestioned pinnacle of expression. A kind of anti-native-speakerism, writing from a multilingual perspective contradicts the myth of first language supremacy, creating instead the potential for a shape-shifting language with an independent, self-legislative mouthfeel. As poet Jenny Zhang writes in her collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find—the title itself being a fine example of supplemented meaning by way of presumable mispronunciation: “I need someone to believe in ESL and someone else to invent the undoing of dominance.”
I want to suggest tentatively that having the ability to communicate in more than one language can translate to an intuitive if dormant form of multilingual writing.
As I move through illustrations in this essay, it becomes clear how my reading list is increasingly informed by writers who are neither first language nor unilingual English speakers. These could be writers from immigrant families, writers from bilingual or multilingual communities, cosmopolitan writers who pick up and experiment in languages as they travel. As I myself hold dual citizenship in Canada and South Africa—born in Montreal, but raised by South African parents in the semi-desert, small-city landscape that calls itself Bloemfontein—I have a longstanding fascination to engage critically with this expanding subsection of literature. Now I want to participate, not only in the acknowledgment, but in the legitimization of this literature. This literature, which is brave enough to cross linguistic borders, to challenge assumptions of fluency and to express itself with the honesty of a particular writer’s verbal worldview.
Graciously, The Town Crier has provided me, and 13 other writers, with the forum to tackle this topic. Throughout the October issue, “Writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective” will adopt different forms. To whet your interest in the upcoming essays, posted on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of every week: Jihyun Rosel Kim and Dominique Bernier-Cormier engage with a duality of identity premised on the divergent cultural signifiers of bilingualism; Geneviève Robichaud and I talk to Daphné B. and Marie Darsigny about straddling the anglo- and francophone literary scenes in Quebec. Kenyan writer Ndinda Kioko poetically explores the disguise language can assume in relation to race. Argentinian novelist Guadalupe Muro narrativizes the editing practice inherent to her book Air Carnation, gaining fluency along with the writing process. Kalina Newmark, James Stanford and Nacole Walker offer a sociolinguistic study of English pronunciation in Native American and First Nations communities across the US and Canada. Multilingual poets Oana Avasilichioaei and Cia Rinne illustrate fluctuating lingual signification, respectively striating an essay with ways to define the polyglot, and discussing an intuitive relationship to shifting languages within her own oeuvre. Jeramy Dodds designs a new font, questioning the ability to communicate within the constraints of a visually altered language. Apart from shaping this issue of The Town Crier as a whole, I will present a pair of personal poem-essays on my relationship to my mother tongue Afrikaans; on the wax and wane of a language’s growth through personal narrative, collective history, and political responsibility.
Throughout these essays, English poses as private idiom, as an alternate self, as mask, as shadow, as intercultural bridge, as profession, as language, and as literature.
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