Friday, February 5, 2010

Being Bilingual Is Like

Don Share, poet and senior editor at Poetry, has a wide-ranging, interesting post he titles "Speaking English is Like"---an allusion to the title of the opening poem in Kristin Naca's Bird Eating Bird. In addition to Naca's work, he also references Craig Santos Perez and his blog post at Harriet about "U.S. Hispanics." But the post really drew me in when it began to hone in on the subject of bilingualism. At one point, he quotes the Irish (as in Irish language) poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill who, in an essay, writes:

"Does a bilingual existence really, as many claim, lead to a genuinely stereoscopic and enriched view of life, or is it the cause of mental astigmatism and blurred vision, a sense of displacement, a deep anxiety? I have found at times that the inner contradictions bilingualism entails cause psychic pain: sometimes it is as if a civil war were going on inside me, and the sheer effort of maintaining a standoff of the warring parties is deeply exhausting. All my energies get sucked down into the subconscious, with a depression characterised by overwhelming lethargy as its most obvious physical manifestation. Even in better times there is a constant restlessness. Is this feeling of being unsettled, vaguely in exile from somewhere I know not where or something I know not what, connected with the sheer complexity of Irish history - or is it just an ineradicable part of the modern condition?"

And then Don Share writes:

"I wonder how that would sit with American poets who are bilingual."

Well, that would depend on which bilingual poet you were to ask, and what trajectory that particular poet has had with his/her bilingualism. "American poets who are bilingual" is as heterogeneous a group as American poets. 

I read Nuala's excerpt, and it underscored for me what "bilingualism" has not meant in my life. If anything, any "sense of displacement" or "psychic pain" or "constant restlessness" has come from having to contend with external attitudes that, in ways explicit or implicit, suggest that my condition as a bilingual citizen of the United States somehow renders me "foreign" ("You speak English without an accent") in the country I was born and raised in. Consider this article about an independent bookstore in New Haven, CT, which is requiring it's Hispanic employees to only speak in English, because its management wants to "make our customers feel welcome and comfortable" !

 My bilingualism---that is, my capacity to read, understand, write, translate from, translate into (with help), and speak Spanish---has given me an "enriched view of life." I consider myself very lucky in this regard, because I imagine (I have no reason to doubt Ni Dhomhnaill's sincerity) that this may not be the case with other people's relationship to their second tongue.

But I would also echo Don Share when he says, "I don't feel at all superior to a monolingual person." Which is not to say that there aren't Spanish-speaking Latino/as who view non-Spanish -speaking Latino/as as somehow less "Latino/a" or  somehow inferior because of this fact.

Ironically enough, the poet who first instilled in me the notion that my Spanish was an asset was John Montague, who was a visiting poet at UC Berkeley when I was an undergraduate there. A seminal moment for me, then, where my biligualism is concerned, was a visit to his office hours to show him a poem that included some Spanish. The lesson he imparted in that one hour visit remains to this day. And he's the Irish poet whose work I first fell in love with, and still love. 

Reading Nuala's passage also reminded me of the reaction I had the first time I read Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory in 1982, when I was in high school. It underscored how two people with very similar linguistic backgrounds----having Spanish play an indelible role in our respective childhoods----could then diverge radically in our linguistic journeys due to Roman Catholic nuns paying a visit to a private home to tell a set of parents to cease speaking to their children in their mother tongue. I've said it before: I feel grateful that Sister Mary Stevens, my first grade teacher, never paid a visit to my home!

Having said all this, I love Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's work and had the immense pleasure of spending an afternoon with her over a few pints of beer in Davis CA in the spring of 2000. Our point of concurrence was our love of literary translation. I took the opportunity to ask her something I knew and know to be true for me. I confessed that working on the translation of a poem (from Spanish to English) and coming to a place where I felt good about the English language poem I'd come up with gave me as much satisfaction as an original poem of my own I'd been working on. She said she felt the same way, and I believed her.

my thanks to Don Share whose post prompted these jottings


msedano said...

there's a world of gigantic assumptions in this phrase: "inner contradictions bilingualism entails". i'm not feeling charitable enough to grant the assumption a modicum of credence. hence the discussion falls on deaf ears. but then, i'm not a poet, hence don't understand the inner contradictions being a poet entails.

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