Reflections from the Contributors of Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language
October 26, 2021
Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language(Book*hug Press)—edited by Leonarda Carranza, Eufemia Fantetti, and Ayelet Tsabari—is a vital anthology that opens a compelling dialogue about language diversity and probes the importance of language in our identity and the ways in which it shapes us.
We had the opportunity to hear from the contributors of Tongues about language, favourite expressions, and inspirations for their work. Read on for their thoughts and reflections.
What inspired your contribution to the Tongues anthology?
Danny Ramadan: It feels sometimes that I carry with me two personalities: The person who speaks in Arabic, and the one who speaks in English. The English speaker is fluent, charismatic, and up for a good time, while the Arabic speaker is introverted, traumatized, and would rather be left alone. There is a pull and a push between the two, and language brings that imbalance to the forefront of my life all the time. Writing for the Tongues anthology allowed me to unpack this, while also looking at my relationship with my husband. Is he only married to the English speaker, with little to no connection with my Arabic half?
Jenny Heijun Wills: I have long admired the editors of this collection as well as several of the other contributors. So it was an easy decision for me. What’s more, I think that the particularities and peculiarities of my cultural experiences makes my relationship to language relatively unique. It is important to articulate some of the ways language might impact a transracial, transnational Asian adoptee. Often, our connections to ethnicity and, in particular, language are fraught and even painful. For me, I never saw the Korean language, never met someone who spoke it, until I was an adult.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: My essay grew organically from a column I had written a year earlier. Both draw on my fascination with the idea that you can lose what’s native to you, what’s by all accounts your birthright. In my case, that’s my command of Arabic. I wanted to trace the journey that took me to this point in my life when I’m uncomfortable speaking the language I used at home and with my family.
Rebecca Fisseha: I was invited to contribute by Eufemia Fantetti, who is one of the editors of the anthology, based on some thoughts I had shared at the launch party for my novel about why I decided to not italicize the Amharic words in my novel Daughters of Silence. She asked me whether I would be interested in expanding those thoughts into an essay for the anthology, and I was happy to do so. Working on the essay forced me to trace back to how I arrived at that decision, over the years-long process of engagement with English and Amharic.
Rowan McCandless: I have for a long time now considered the English language as a tool of colonialism and oppression. I've thought of the erasure that happens when an artificial construct called race is used to define me when I don't have the languages of my birthright to offer contradiction.
Sahar Golshan: I spent the first twenty years of my life primarily communicating in English. Because of this, I romanticized what it could be like to speak Farsi. When I started studying my father’s language, I imagined that learning it could repair a psychological brokenness, cleanse a lingering guilt, or fill a void in my connection to my family living in Iran. With my piece “Ye Kam,” I wanted to re-enter these distinct language memories. To express both the ecstasy and sharp grief of reunions with language across geography and time.
Adam Pottle: My experience in 2019 had a great impact on me in terms of helping me figure out where I'm supposed to be, what home may look like. There was an explosion of different emotions and desires and I continue to feel their effects, and I had to articulate them and try to make sense of them. This essay gave me the opportunity to do that.
JónínaKirton: I think often about language, land and body, the way they are woven together in our blood memory. Even if we have never heard the languages of our Ancestors, we can feel them in our blood memory just as we can feel when we are walking the lands of our Ancestors. I welcomed the opportunity to speak about some of what I have learned about my family and the feelings that come with the knowledge that I come from people who spoke other languages.
English was the only language that was spoken in my home growing up and yet, both of my parents had grown up with mothers and extended family who, at one time, spoke their mother tongue. In one generation we lost both languages. I have wondered why this happened and although history can fill in some of the blanks for me, no one in my family ever directly spoke about this when I was growing up. There were jokes or in some cases half-truths. Much of my writing life has been devoted to uncovering and exposing the things that my family hid and that we were all cautioned against talking about. As I learned more, I became increasingly aware that this push to only speak English and "fit in" had robbed me of two cultures that I deeply resonated with.
Despite this loss I do feel that both languages live on in my body. My cells, my whole being lights up when I hear someone speak Michif or Icelandic. The same thing happens when I hear Michif or Icelandic accents when speaking English. I follow the lilt of their words, the way they phrase things; it all calls me home to my Ancestors.
Do you have a favourite word, phrase or idiom in any language? Is there a term or expression you wish had an English translation?
Danny Ramadan: In Arabic we say "حلّ التعب" (Haal Al-Ta'ab), which literally translates to "The onset of tiresome." Makes no sense, right? It describes that moment when you have been powering through for so long, and now that you have accomplished what you aimed to do, you suddenly are tired. It's not an ongoing state of tiresomeness, but rather a sudden switch to a complete exhaustion after you have done all of what you were hoping to do. It's a good state, really. It means you were successful.
Jenny Heijun Wills: I was just telling my partner the other day that one of my favourite words in the English language is goggles. I don’t know how anyone can say it with a straight face. And I love words that make me physically smile. I’m told that the Korean concept of han is difficult to put into English words. From what I understand, it is an ontological and existential quality of suffering, grief, but also tenacity and courage. How suffering begets something unique and beautiful. But what do I know? I have to look it up on wikipedia.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: I find that I say the phrase “all things considered” in English a lot in my daily conversations. I think it shows how much I debate things internally and how conflicted I am about so many issues that I have to consider and reconsider everything around me. My favourite Arabic expression comes from mourning rituals: “El ba’ia fe hyatak.” It translates to: May the remainder of the deceased person’s years get added to your life expectancy.” I find it both charming and morbid. It’ll be fun introducing an equivalent in English. Or maybe fun is not the exact word. Challenging?
Rebecca Fisseha: Not really, or rather there are too many to choose from. But if I had to name one right now, perhaps because I had a conversation about it recently, it would be one of those expressions in English which actually make no sense (unless I Google it, of course, in which case a perfectly logical explanation might be found): “Bob’s your uncle.” Who’s Bob? Why is he my uncle? And why is he always my reward for learning some new process or procedure or how-to about? I recently introduced the phrase to a family member, which made for one hilarious conversation. That and “two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Do lambs even have tails? Are they known to shake them quickly, or slowly?
Rowan McCandless: At the moment my favourite word is ineffable. Thank you Neil Gaiman and his book Good Omens. I just love how this word rolls off my tongue. I also find it ironic that as a writer, I would favour a word which means, inexpressible and beyond description.
Sahar Golshan: One of the first phrases I ever heard was “ong ong, ong ging gong.” These words sung to me by my mother are in Teochew: a dialect of Chinese. “Ong ong, ong ging gong” is the main phrase of a popular Teochew lullaby.
This year, I worked on a project with a group of heritage speakers of Teochew. Together we translated the lullaby into traditional Chinese characters, French, and English. The Teochew diaspora has migrated across the world, so our team speaks varieties of the dialect with Singaporean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian accents.
The word “ong” means to rock, as in to rock a baby. The words “ging gong” cannot be translated to English. In fact, after consulting the mothers who we recorded singing the lullaby, my team and I found out that the words “ging gong” don’t even have a direct meaning in Teochew. They are words that serve a rhythmic and sonic objective. Sounds to lull a baby to sleep. The lullaby reminds me of the molecular beauty of language as a system of sound.
Adam Pottle: This question makes me uncomfortable. I'm not sure I have a favourite word or expression, but a phrase I hope to read one day is "we'll offer you a six-figure deal." I wish there was an English word or expression for the feeling you get when you're all alone and you experience something beautiful and there's no one to share it with, but then we don't need English for everything, do we? English has enough.
JónínaKirton: I use "All my Relations" when I pray or as part of my signature when sending letters or emails. It speaks to the need to acknowledge and consider all beings that inhabit this earth. Beings includes all people, all four-legged, the winged ones, those that live in water. We are all connected, we are related, and in communion with one another. This includes what Vine Deloria Jr describes as “inanimate objects” in this quote from his book God is Red.
All inanimate objects have spirit and personality so that the mountains, the rivers, waterfalls, even the continents and the Earth itself have intelligence, knowledge and the ability to communicate ideas. – Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red
I say, "All my Relations," to remind myself that I am related to all the people of this earth and that while nothing here is mine, it is all under my care. I need to take them all into account when making decisions.
Are there topics or questions about language that are still lingering for you? Would you consider exploring this theme further in your writing?
Danny Ramadan: Do you have seven more books? Language is funny that way. It expands with our daily use, and becomes larger than its own words. It's both universal as well as deeply personal. It speaks to us as a community, to me as a person, and to you as the other. It's engulfing me in so many ways.
Jenny Heijun Wills: I’m still thinking about the specific ways stolen and lost language impact adopted people. And how that loss creates conflict if we are able to reunite with our biological/first families. Already, so much of what one desires to hear from their family is unspeakable. But a lack of shared language makes it nearly impossible. I also wonder if it is not just a missing shared language that makes these communications impossible. Possibly, but through fiction, and probably allegorically so. I’m fascinated by what is said between statements. And what goes unexpressed. The characters in one of the novels I’m writing right now are in conflict because of an inability to say things to each other, even though they speak the same language.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: I’d like to write a follow-up piece after living in the Arab world for a few years and once I’ve regained my fluency in Arabic. My most recent book is called Return, and I’m obsessed with the idea of going back to my roots on multiple levels, including the linguistic one. Who knows when that’ll happen but let’s just say a sequel is in the works.
Rebecca Fisseha: I had an experience that was, I think, the perfect diaspora experience of the evolution of language. It concerned an Ethiopian proverb, which translates roughly into "husband and wife are drawn from the same river." By pure accident, a family member who is of my generation mispronounced the Amharic word for "drawn from." She stressed the wrong syllable. But that gave a whole new meaning to the proverb. It changed it to: "husband and wife draw from the same river." Mind blown. Then I passed this new, second meaning by someone who is of our parents’ generation. He wasn’t having it. Instant shut down. That experience was really fascinating to me. Technically, both versions made sense, the original and this new discovery, but only one found acceptance. The idea of how language evolves by way of mistakes is something I could look into in the future.
Rowan McCandless: In university I took courses in psycholinguistics. Language as a construct has long held my interest. There are a number of topics about language that still linger with me. I'm interested in the power of language and its effect on perceptions and self-definition. I'm interested in the languages that are lost to me because of the Transatlantic Slave Trade; the Polish language lost to me because of colonialism.
Sahar Golshan: There are too many! Language is a fundamental theme in all of my writing. My earlier sense of alienation and later obsession with language is a seed of my writing practice.
Adam Pottle: The language of love fascinates me. How that language lies not in words but in actions, the things we do for our loved ones. I haven't written much about love, and I'd like to try.
JónínaKirton: There are many aspects of language that intrigue me. For me this includes the sounds we make, including singing, toning. We know that words can wound or heal, that they can live on in our bodies, but there is more to it than just the meanings of the words themselves. There is tone of voice, the intent behind the words that have a vibration that can rattle or calm our spirits, our bodies. And then there is toning, using our mouth, our breath to bring forth sounds that can offer healing to ourselves and others. There are many teachings around this. The most commonly known would be the "OM" sound often used in yoga or chanting practices to relax the body and the mind. I was introduced to other sounds via a practice called Continuum. I learned of Continuum while in a “writing from the body” workshop offered by one of my most beloved writing mentors, ingrid rose. ingrid’s Continuum teacher Emily Conrad speaks about “breath ~ wave ~ sound” as ways to offer our body much needed attention and to access cellular memory that would include the evolution of human beings. At times while doing this practice we are very intentionally seeking a connection with the part of our body, our cells that remember when we were once winged ones or when we had fins. Reconnecting with the inner knowing that exists within my body, that is linked to our evolution as human beings on this planet fits very well with my most beloved phrase, "All my Relations." We truly are all related.
What are words but sound waves with a particular frequency. Is it possible that we are most attuned the frequency of the languages, the words that our Ancestors spoke? Could this be why we may feel comforted hearing the languages our Ancestors used? I would like to explore all this and more through research and other ways of knowing. I often find writing is a way into other ways of knowing. Perhaps I already know the answers I seek. Perhaps they lay just below my skin or travel in my blood and toning, breathwork can help dislodge them allowing them to travel to my fingers on keys.
What are you working on now?
Danny Ramadan: Just finalized the last touches on the Foghorn Echoes, my next novel, coming out in 2022. Now, focusing on my memoir, Crooked Teeth, which I hope you will see in the upcoming years, and maybe dipping my toes back in children's writing. We shall see.
Jenny Heijun Wills: I’m working on two novels! One is co-authored, which is another way of thinking about dialogue, speech, language, and communication. The other is set in an earlier time period than usual for me.
Rebecca Fisseha: I’m working on my second novel.
Rowan McCandless: I'm working on a collection of short stories with speculative elements entitled The Mausoleum of Lost Souls.
Sahar Golshan: I am completing the manuscript of a coming to language memoir. It’s a coming to art and coming-of-age text about the quest to understand and to be understood through personal and collective storytelling.
Kamal Al-Solaylee: I just published a book last month. Give me a break.
Adam Pottle: At this moment, I'm working with my agent to revise my new novel so we can send it to publishers, and I'm working on the script for a graphic novel focusing on two Deaf brothers. I hope to one day find an artist who's interested in illustrating it.
JónínaKirton: I have just finished my third book, Standing in a River of Time. This collection of prose and poetry looks back at some of the pivotal events in my life. It is a departure from my usual short poetry collections and will be published with Talonbooks in 2022.
When I first envisioned the book, I had not expected it to include prose. I had been collecting poems for several years but as I began to put the collection together, prose pieces would pour out of me. Arriving first was a chapter that started with the death of my mother thirty-five years ago and the realization that this book was about recovery, which I had entered ten days after my mother made the change of worlds. As I worked with my substantive editor, Joanne Arnott, her insights and questions, brought ruptures that brought forth unexpected back stories. These became new chapters, woven in and around the original pieces. With each rupture another outpouring of words would arrive. There were entire days that I did not look up from my computer. My husband could sense the urgency so stayed away and when I surfaced, he was there waiting with dinner. The book is a revelatory journey through trauma and healing that I feel many will relate to.
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Thank you to the editors of Tongues, Leonarda Carranza, Eufemia Fantetti, and Ayelet Tsabari for sharing these reflections from the anthology's contributors with us.
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