Friday, October 8, 2010

On Being From Another Language

This post was stimulated by another, on Maria Clara Paulino's blog which is full of wonderful reflections on estrangement and being "in-between" two languages, two places, two cultures. She is Portuguese and I am Italian, but I can relate to her musings in a familiar way. In the post, she writes on the use and abuse of the word "love" across cultures—how in her native Portuguese language it is taken very seriously and it means a very specific kind of affection (as it does in my native Italian); while in America, it is often just thrown there at the end of a letter just to mean a slightly more intimate form of  salutation.
I have often wondered how it felt for Joseph Conrad (with whom I curiously share a last name, though mine was acquired through marriage) to write in a language other than his native Polish. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, Conrad "brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature." I think there is something to be said for being a bilingual, bicultural writer; it certainly gives us a different perspective on the language we write in, and also on ourselves. When I was living in Canada, the linguistic slippage between the English and French that were the official languages, and the Italian in the back of my mind, often created some interesting occurrences. Below are some musings written during one of those occurrences, one day that I was listening to the French CBC radio channel:

'... a sudden jolt to my system: words in Italian coming out of the radio, like an alien lingo, dissociated from any source, context, culture, discourse, dialectic, amorous or hateful speech; the politeness of formal encounters or the cutting language of intimate insults; words in Italian coming out of the blue, like sobriquets inserted into a strange electronic music part-psychedelic part-contemporary/classical—words foreign to anybody else listening to this Espace Musique station I often put on because the Quebecois accent, when it's not too gratingly nasal, is soothing to my ears and I don't have to pay too much attention to a language I don't understand very well, I can let it wash over me like ripples in a calm sea, it doesn't jump at me with the same heavy burden of meanings, associations, memories and images like English... 
But today, it was Italian, oh, the incongrousness of it! All of a sudden a strange string of Dove posso trovare un albergo? Mi puo' indicare la direzione del museo? Come si chiama questo? — conventional phrases from travel books, those that never really help you because you always invariably misuse or mispronunce them or they are hopelessly out of date in the continuously evolving universe that is a living language shared and spoken by millions; silly phrases for tourists, made even more ridiculous by the strong Anglo accent, and in the suddeness of it I was moved and shocked and surprised by the intensity with which it moved and it shocked me, that such words all of a sudden should come out of my radio, and fall there in the otherwise silence of my morning alone preparing breakfast, feeding my cats; words so foreign and exotic to others in their incomprehensibleness, but to me, all too familiar, arresting...
Like the Surrealist list recounted by Michael Foucault at the beginning of "The Order of Things", these words belong to a taxonomy strange, almost disquieting, exotic in its foreigness, remote, incomprehensible to most listeners, who can be amused by them, irritated by them, pleased by them, but not find them normal. And yet, and this is the mark of my displacement, my permanent damnation to stranger status, I cannot find them normal either, because they are transplanted away from their context, deracinated from any meaning I can recognise, any soil I could walk on, any speech I could utter or hear uttered by others.
 Words. Just words. Foreign. Exotic.
 I am exotic to myself, for a moment, and yet at the same moment my brain, my heart recognize these words: they are part of the milk imbued at my mother's breasts, part of the sounds heard when I was growing up; they are the sounds and tastes and feelings and smells I was socialized into as a child. They are part of my landscape, but my landscape at some point suffered an earthquake and collapsed and went under the ground. My landscape is all interior and nothing in these mountains, these trees, this sea, these smells and voices and colours and sounds and clothes and demeanours and vibrations surrounding me here, today, call up any tree, any mountain, any sea, any sounds, any smells any voices any clothes any demeanours and vibrations I can recognise from my interior landscape.
To live in the crack where my landscape fell into; to inhabit an Atlantis of the memory, swimming in its amniotic waters day after day, and no one, no one knows where I really live when I say I live "just around the corner", nobody really knows where I am when I smile to them, when I talk to them in their language, when I reply with or without attention, when I shop and pay in the exact change and I make a joke at the checkout counter and I am more often than not misunderstood not because of my imprecise use of English but because of the slippage between my English and their English - a slippage not linguistic but cultural.

Some weeks ago an acquaintance told me, eyes ablaze and amused with the discovery she had just made: "I've just realised why your way of talking is so lively, so distinct, so wonderful! You use English as if it was Italian—it's not the grammar, it's something else. Your intonation, an inflection, certain peculiar words you use, you make it come so much more alive!"
She is a storyteller and translator from the Yiddish, speaks three languages and grew up in a Jewish area of Montreal in the 1950s. She understands the mystery of languages. Even though her passport says "Canadian", even though English appears to most to be her first tongue, she, like me, lives in several different linguistic universes at once, making comparisons and shifting from one to the other restlessly. It's a good but hard exercise for the mind, and sometimes you can get stuck, you can become confused, caught in the limbo between languages, and then you don't quite know where you are anymore.
Which language is this now? What am I speaking now? Which language am I supposed to use now?
Even today, after 24 years of having made English my daily language, 24 years of no longer speaking my mother tongue from rising to bedtime, I can become caught in that gap. Sometimes, a little shortcircuit in the brain, some crossing of wires, and an Italian word or even a whole, brief sentence may slip into my English conversation, and suddenly the gap opens up into a deep and almost threatening abyss, the abyss of my mother's madness I have tried to keep at bay all my life.
Her madness had nothing to do with language, her madness had all to do with language. In different cultural contexts, my mother's frequent ranting and raving, apparently without any sense or order, some of her speech patterns, could have been those of glossolalia, the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" praised and encouraged within some Christian practices. And, in yet other cultural or historical places, her delusions could have been seen, praised or feared but never ridiculed, as manifestations of the power of witchcraft or shamanism...
I come from a culture that still believes in the power of the evil eye, and the evil eye is not really much to do with a gaze but rather with an incantation that needs to be verbalized, requires an utterance to come alive, to become effective, powerful and dangerous. But I have come to see that there is another form of the evil eye: it is that question I have learned to recognize as not necessarily innocent, not always just the sign of a curiosity about others:
"Where are you from?"
Language as the marker of identity and otherness, and once  you open your mouth, even if your facial traits, your body language, your clothing style, had not already given you away as a foreign, anOther, your accent does.
Where are you from?
From another language, one far, far away, eons removed from this one."


  1. Amalia,
    What a lovely surprise to read your comments here about my blog; and thank you for commenting on my post about the use of the word "love." I am honored that you have been following what I write. So much that we have in common: several languages, cultures, displacement, and a difficulty with academia as well. I do have a Ph.D. out of necessity, survival, etc. But if I could only write... I will continue to read your blog and hope we will write to each other now and then. To a large extent, your words in this post could be mine.

  2. Dear Maria Clara,
    I am the one who's honored that you read my post, and so quickly! I would certainly love (in the real meaning of the word, ha ha) to correspond with you. I have signed up to receive your posts by email, so you can reach me there.
    Grazie ancora!

  3. Amalia
    I'm new to your blog via Paul Lisicky's blog, always interested in the memoir form. It's good to meet you here.

  4. Hello Elisabeth, so good to "see" you here! I hope you'll keep visiting and leave comments when inspired.