It’s complicated to be an artist with family spanning multiple languages – my relatives love that I write but think I’m not writing for them

By Hannah Giorgis |

(The Guardian) – The first language I learned to speak, under the careful instruction of my doting grandmother, was Amharic. Ethiopia’s primary tongue (the second most commonly spoken Semitic language after Arabic) connected me to her then and still runs like a live wire through my extended family’s conversations. We are thousands of miles apart, separated by oceans and passports. But when we call each other, it is Amharic that carries our love across the sea.

Words shape how I see the world, how I move through problems, how I relax. They give me comfort, order and structure. I’ve been writing since before I knew writers got paid (in theory at least) just to make sense of the din.

But, as the American-born daughter of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, the words I know best are in English. The grammar I can most readily bend to my will is that which I learned in American schools, under the perfunctory instruction of teachers insistent on making my immigrant-daughter tongue fall in line. The classical literary canon I consumed as a child – and the books topping recommendation lists even now – are those of white authors for whom English is always statement, never question. But sometimes I still dream in Amharic. When my feelings are deepest and most difficult to diagram, they take on Amharic’s vivid imagery.

When I went back to Ethiopia for the first time in almost 10 years this January, my young cousin, Kidus, looked at me with eyes wide and heart beaming. He told me he knew I was a writer – he’d seen my articles on Facebook and read them all. He paused for a moment before looking at me again, a quiet guilt appearing where before there had only been excitement. In a shushed voice, he told me he’d read my work even though he didn’t quite understand everything. The gentle accusation hung thick in the air: you write in English; your articles are not for me.

For the artist in diaspora, choosing what language to create in is fraught. Poet Safia Elhillo, a Sudanese-American artist, calls herself a “language traitor” for writing in English (and not Arabic). Cuban-American writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat, who writes in both English and Spanish, told NPR, “I have the feeling that I’m not fluent in either one… Words fail me in both languages.”

I stumbled upon Pérez Firmat’s Bilingual Blues, a 1995 book of poems, 10 years after its release. A high school freshman enamored of literature but only beginning to like poetry, I saw myself reflected in his brooding diasporic meditation:

“The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

My subject:

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English

though I belong nowhere else

Indeed, I never know what language to use when explaining myself. English is easiest; I swim in it every day. But English is not the language in which I love. Amharic is thick and sweet; it takes its time rolling off my tongue. But I can no longer read or write in Amharic – the alphabet hanging over my bed is more decorative than didactic. Eritrea’s Tigrinya is full and hard to latch onto. Even my mother, whose family hails from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and the bordering Eritrea, does not speak Tigrinya. So I sit in the gaps and intersections, trying to weave sense across language, time and space.

I am buoyed by the work of artists and writers who infuse their most authentic selves into their work in whatever language(s) they can access, in whatever language(s) can grasp the complexities of the stories they need to tell.

I have seen African writers repurpose colonial languages to leverage critiques of the very regimes that brought those sounds to the continent and Latin@ authors like Junot Díaz refuse to italicize Spanish to indicate foreign-ness.

I know I can look to these and other immigrant writers for models of resisting and re-imagining the boundaries of English as a language documenting immigrant experiences. In the moments when English fails to carry the strength of our stories, we send our work “back home” orally instead – and our families’ love ultimately transcends any language barrier.

Source: The Guardian


 

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