Giving Voice Back to Language: Notes on Mirene Arsanios’ The Autobiography of a Language
Feb 20 ● BY Idza Luhumyo
- Mirene Arsanios’ The Autobiography of a Language gives voice (back) to language through a series of fragmented meditations on—among other things—identity, class, migration, and grief. It is a fiercely inventive work that owns up to its debts: the book’s title is a nod to Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother, a novel that offers a useful trail which Arsanios follows in her interrogation on language.
- Before we crack open the book, its cover informs us that it consists of ‘Essays and Stories.’ And yet, in our reading of the book, we are not always certain what is essay and what is story. In this way, the limbo in which we find ourselves as readers mirrors or parallels the in-between-ness that Arsanios’ stories and essays are exploring; that inevitable liminality (neurosis?) brought about by being born into multiple languages.
- There is something distinctly obfuscatory, even opaque, in Arsanios’ book. Given that its interrogatory center is language (and its relationship to state/patriarchal power), the fragmented ambiguity of its style — and form — brings to mind Edouard Glissant’s ideas about the right to opacity, particularly in relation to writers who are writing across cultural lines. In other words: there is something instructive about Arsanios’ insistence on her right not to be easily understood, the right to keep some of her to herself.
- In an essay titled “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing,” Linda Fowlers distinguishes between “reader-based prose” and “writer-based prose,” arguing that the latter “reflects the associative, narrative path of the writer’s own confrontation with her subject. In its language, it reveals her use of privately loaded terms and shifting but unexpressed contexts for her statements.”
- If we are to use Edouard Glissant’s ideas on the ‘right to opacity’ and Linda Fowler’s idea of ‘writer-based prose’ as guiding frameworks, then Arsanios’ book could be read as an attempt to reclaim her right to opacity through a series of conversations that she is having with herself not only to trouble dominant ideas about language, but also to consider how the multiple languages into which she was born continue to (un)shape her life.
- The personas in Arsanios’ book are troubled by language. Language is both culprit and victim (“I want to uncouple the word ‘mother’ from mother tongue”). Language is both problem and solution (“I gave it some thought and have come to the conclusion that everybody shares (dividí) my condition: millions speak languages that are spoken by them alone (djis)”. Language should pay for what it has done (“I feel environmentally wasteful when writing in English, a language whose proliferation is killing so many others”), or what it has allowed to be done in its name (“Secretly, I long for an autocracy, a reproducible language, an identity taking precedence over the other”).
- But if language, as we know, and as Arsanios shows in the book, is about expressing thought, it is also extraverbal. It can be located in personal and communal rituals, in the unscalable silence between a mother and a daughter, and in the misunderstandings that persist between a daughter and her father. In the hospital where her ailing father is admitted, the persona learns that one way to speak her father’s language—also her mother tongue—is to slip 5,000 LBP into the cleaning lady’s pocket once she’s done wiping the bathroom floor.
- “Insist when she’ll pretend to refuse,” the father says to his daughter.
“Do I have to do it?” she asks.
“This is how things are done here.”
- “Insist when she’ll pretend to refuse,” the father says to his daughter.
- This is how things are done here.
- Which is to say: this is how we speak the language here.
- If a mother tongue is the language of one’s early childhood, can fluency in “how things are done here” be one way to lay claim to a mother tongue? What is a mother tongue, anyway? What does it have to do with a father? And what does a father have to do with a motherland?
- “I want to uncouple the word ‘mother’ from mother tongue,” the persona says in Dawn. It is a cutting sentence, laying bare the tenuous relationship between motherhood and language. Arsanios explores this tension:
- “My mother spoke Spanish with her mother. Her mother spoke Spanish with me, her granddaughter. My mother spoke French to me. My father spoke to my mother in French. My mother had to learn French in order to speak with my father. My father spoke Spanish occasionally, but never with me. When I was a child, he spoke to me in Arabic, a language my mother didn’t speak and never learned. My grandmother spoke Papiamentu with her mother, and Spanish with her daughter. Our vocabulary was minimal but efficient. My mother spoke in outbursts of rage and joy. My mother’s mother tongue (Spanish) wasn’t her mother’s mother tongue (Papiamentu).”
- Can you lay claim to a language that you were born into, but that you do not speak? What aspects of this lingual legacy are yours? How about your children? Which parts of (your) language(s) can you hand down to them, and which ones are you unable to? Would you be able to bequeath them the language of, say, slyly slipping money into the pockets of cleaning ladies?
- “Legally speaking, I have two passports; one Lebanese, which I cannot hand down to my future child by virtue of being female, and a Venezuelan one that expired five years ago and that I can’t renew without a cedula—Venezuelan ID—unobtainable if I don’t live in the country. Outside of wedlock, in my father’s country, my child would be registered a “bastard.”
- Perhaps the persona’s straddling of worlds — and languages — makes her keenly aware of something: not all languages are equal. Language can be a bridge, leveraging one’s movement from one social rung to the other. On her grandmother’s decision to jettison one language for another as she scaled the socioeconomic ladder: “Elina believed that Spanish was better suited for wealth than creole.”
- So where does all this leave the author? Usually: in limbo and secretly longing for “an autocracy, a reproducible language, an identity shamelessly taking over all the others.” But in the meantime: taking shade under liminality and dreaming of a lingual utopia where if she were to have a child she would “address them in a bastard language, a combination of those available to me—Arabic, French, Spanish, English, Italian—all existing in the mix of my inflections, with no language truly taking precedence over the other.”
- There’s something else about language. As a writer, it is right at the heart of Arsanios’ practice. Therefore, laying claim to a(ny) language — and then shaping it into narrative — is what allows her to make sense of the world. “At night, I find solace in narrative—a condition yet to be diagnosed, a process of representation that capitalizes upon experience.”
- What is it about language, anyway?
- Ngugi wa Thiong’o: “In my view language was the most important vehicle through which [that] power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.”
- Toni Morrison: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
- It is through language that Arsanios comes to terms with being a mother and her mother (tongue). Even though she acknowledges that she does not know “how to separate the reproduction of language, class, and feelings from its transmission,” she still places most of her “trust in language, in the ability to share a thinking process with a reader like you.”
- One of the blessings of liminality, of coming from many worlds (languages) and belonging entirely to none, is the freedom to reject binaries and to open oneself up to the possibility of a third way.
- As Arsanios puts it: “There are ways to love outside the mother tongue, beyond a biological bond, ways of reclaiming languages women pass down to other women, whether or not they are daughters.”
- More concisely: “In that sense, the absence of a mother tongue has become my mother tongue.”