I don’t like TED Talks–who does?–so when a friend shared this one by Jamila Lyiscott last year, I didn’t actually watch it, I just read the transcript. Months later I came across the link again and this time I actually watched the video, and it’s both funnier and more intense than I’d thought. But the way in which the transcript truly failed me was in dropping the sheer hilarity of all those audience reaction shots. There really should be transcript notes for that sort of thing, like:
Lyiscott: Sometimes I fight back two tongues while I use the other one in the classroom and when I mistakenly mix them up I feel crazy like … I’m cooking in the bathroom
[WHITE AUDIENCE LOOKS BEFUDDLED]
Pls to fix this, TED Talks people.
Lyiscott calls herself trilingual, which I took as a dig at the idea that languages are neatly-bounded, discrete and countable. Which I agree with, of course. This is why even words like “bilingual” and “trilingual” are kind of irritating—how do you even count how-many-lingual you are if you’re allowed to count not just the fancy, dressed-up languages but also all the dialects, ethnolects, sociolects and argots that you might also speak? Not just a forked tongue but a full-on Cthulhu mouth swarming with tiny little tonguetacles. I probably speak eight or nine lects-of-some-variety, at this level of granularity. I’m assuming most people do. In a world full of multilingual people, one can only feel a kind of horror for anybody who is truly monolingual even in this expanded sense. I don’t know if that’s even possible. At the very least there’ll be a distinction between formal/informal varieties, no? Unless you were raised in a bunker by an apocalyptic cult like Kimmy Schmidt.
*pause while everybody hums the theme song*
I quoted this on Twitter recently:
“I felt ‘experimental’ would explain everything else in a way that said ‘English is not my Second Language but Thanks for Asking.’”
It’s from this interview with Kuzhali Manickavel.
This is interesting to me because I’m never quite sure what to do with ideas like “first language”, “mother tongue” and “native speaker”, either. (My actual, literal mother spoke many lects, like I do.) It’s true that I did learn to speak Sinhala first. I was four before I started learning to speak English: one of my earliest memories is telling my parents I’d figured out that they were switching to English sometimes specifically so that I wouldn’t understand what they were saying! But over the years I’ve grown more comfortable speaking and thinking in English. These days there is a noticeable drop in my reading speed when I switch from reading English to Sinhala, and there are many areas of vocabulary where all my reading and thinking has been exclusively in English for so long that I don’t even know the Sinhala words for those things off the top of my head. I’d need a dictionary to translate this blogpost. I’m neither proud of this nor ashamed of it; I would have preferred it to be otherwise but I’ve had better things to do with my life than to embark on a quest for perfect parity in fluency. What does it matter? Fluency goes up and down with usage. When I was in my late teens I spent a year or two exclusively hanging out with Sinhala speakers—pretending not to speak English well, to fit in better—and my English deteriorated, which I only realized when I was unexpectedly thrust into an English conversation and found myself stuttering and stumbling over vocabulary, word order and pronunciation. And then in my twenties, when I started working in offices where all the work was done in English, the direction of relative fluency reversed again.
(now, sometimes I mix up SOV/SVO word order and I don’t always “fix” it, even if editors sometimes ask. This is my idiolect and I’m trying to let it be itself.)
I’m aware the overall bias toward English is not just a matter of personal preference, obviously. It’s a postcolonial class thing and has been for generations—the long-standing Sinhala slang for English is “the sword”. It’s a joke, but also not a joke—even after the nationalist movement and the Sinhala Only Act and all the culture wars (and literal wars) of the last century, it’s still true that most parents want their kids to speak English well so that they have more opportunities. Mine did. So the one language was encouraged, because it was a weapon, because it was the future; the other didn’t wither away because it was still used every day, but it did stagnate. A language you don’t read fiction in is a language that you don’t speak as well as you think you do.
But there was also a personal preference that grew out of my reading habits, and that’s where this connects back to sff and genre fiction. As a kid I wanted to read sff books, and in Sinhala the only options I could find at the time were translated Clarke novels. As a matter of fact, I think my first Clarke was the Sinhala translation of 2001. It wasn’t a great translation. But then I started reading Clarke in the original, and from there discovered this endless sea of other sff that had never been translated, and then twenty years went by with me reading fiction almost exclusively in English.
(when I have nightmares, on the other hand, they’re in Sinhala. maybe that’s a good way to figure out which one is “really” your mother tongue: it’s the one that comes to you in extremis. sometimes I choose English constructions over Sinhala ones because the latter are more emotive and therefore more painful. when I speak of my late family, I almost always use English words.)
Once I started writing fiction, I got this question semi-regularly: why don’t I write in my “mother tongue”? The implication being it would be more natural if I did, or more authentic, or even that I was performing a kind of acrobatic stunt by writing in English “instead”, that I was “writing fiction in a second language”. The questions are posed innocently enough, I don’t take offense at that. But I don’t usually give them real answers, either, because it’s too complicated to explain. One of the reasons I’m taking a little space here to work through a more complicated response to this question is so that I’ll have a link to reference next time it comes up.
So here’s the thing. Just because one of my tongues is a colonial language doesn’t make it less authentically mine. It is true that Sri Lankan English only exists because of the British occupation. This isn’t ancient history, it was still going when my parents were young; the Queen of England was technically our head of state until a few years before I was born. But I don’t consider English a foreign language; as far as I’m concerned, the British forfeited any claim to it in reparation for the occupation. (For that matter, Sinhala is a foreign colonial language too, only the colonizing happened some centuries earlier. There’s no statute of limitations on history.) I’ve spoken English nearly all of my life, though I started marginally later with it than I did with Sinhala, if you totaled up all the sentences that I have spoken in my life, they would be more in English than not; my parents spoke English as often as they spoke Sinhala; my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents spoke English, though not on the paternal side; my newspapers speak English (there are faultlines between the newspapers in each language and the communities they imagine); my street signs speak English alongside Tamil and Sinhala, every sign a trinity. Any definition of “native speaker” that says that I’m not a native speaker of English is therefore broken.
Not that I want to claim “native speaker”, I find it vaguely repugnant; I’m just pointing out that it’s exactly the colonial history that renders the distinction moot. You break the world, you buy it.
So when I write fiction in English, I’m using a language that I’m happy to claim as one of my own. When I publish in US/UK markets, I don’t see it as sending tribute to Rome—or to Nanjing, for a more historically accurate metaphor since I don’t think we ever actually sent tribute to Rome but did have to placate the Yongle Emperor in the mid-fifteenth century—but as choosing to participate in the biggest and oldest extant tradition and paraliterary culture of anglophone short sff. Yes, sometimes it’s grating that there is such a distinct gap between centre and periphery right now, and that the claimed internationalism of “world” cons and “world” awards is a façade. But that’ll shift with time and more wonderful initiatives like Omenana or The Sea Is Ours. We need many such projects!
At some point, in fact, I want to try doing something like that myself. (Not yet, I’m still a bit new to all this.) But the reason I’m thinking about it at all is that I’m coming around to the idea that the gap between centre and periphery can’t be rebalanced from the inside, only from the outside. You don’t get it done by petitioning for imperial favours. The Yongle Emperor had the King of Kotte brought to him as a prisoner after the Ming–Kotte War and tried to appoint a regent to go back and take power, but it was too late by then, right? Because the periphery had reorganized itself and made their own choices in the power vacuum. Paying tribute is very different from being a vassal state. And wow, this metaphor got totally out of hand but it still sort of works and I’m going with it.
Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Boonoonoonoos little bit Boonoonoonoos” by Binyavanga Wainaina in Jalada: “As if she has left herself, Milka can see her limbs lurch to the center of the living room, her skirt bursting with color and soft wind between her legs as they circle each other. Little bowls of living-room light are spinning gently around her as she turns, arms around Eunice’s waist. She can name each of her organs, which sit spinning inside her like hot rocks peeping out of a creamy pool that reaches out to lap and lick.”