What does it take to truly communicate? In this essay, Claire Jacobson takes us on a journey from language classrooms to the souqs of Morocco, exploring the narrative frameworks that create culture. Read on to discover the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on.
Humans are inveterate storytellers. We narrativize our memories, use allegory and metaphor to communicate complex ideas, and search for meaning in suffering by placing it in the narrative arc of our lives. “When someone asks you who you are,” writes Richard Kearney, “you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to.” Or, as Paul Ricoeur says, “Selfhood is a cloth woven of stories told.”
But it’s not only individuals, Kearney writes. “Communities come to know themselves in the stories they tell about themselves.” When families gather, we always tell stories, sometimes new ones but mostly the old ones over and over—these stories are part of what makes us family. No Christmas celebration in my home is complete without reading about shepherds and wise men and the sociopolitical implications of the term “messiah” in first-century Palestine. These stories are part of what marks us as people of faith and also total nerds. A few weeks ago, my boss told me about the day we went from one bookmobile in town to two, traveling around to neighborhoods without access to the public library—this is one of the many stories that place me firmly in Iowa City, the only city I’ve ever known where you can find inter-bookmobile competition drama.
Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, takes place in the author’s native Equatorial Guinea, a relatively small country on the west coast of Africa that celebrates fifty years of independence from Spain this year. La Bastarda, the first novel by a female author from Equatorial Guinea translated to English, is a deceivingly simple story of a young girl, Okomo, who grows up in the country and defines her identity in the absence of a living mother and with a father who does not claim her. Told from the perspective of Okomo, the reader begins to understand the disjointed and complicated definition of family. She is raised by her grandmother, who is the first wife of Okomo’s polygamous grandfather, is told that her mother died in childbirth due to witchcraft, and that the father she has never met is a “scoundrel.” The novel depicts Okomo’s struggle with and escape from the confines of social convention in a story that teaches the often seemingly simple, yet difficult path to individual freedom. In addition, the work can be read as an allegory for the young nation separating from its colonial “parent” Spain, and Equatorial Guinea’s existential place as an orphan—culturally and geographically separated from Spain, Latin America, and Africa, and often ignored by an array of academic fields and global politics. In La Bastarda, we read Okomo’s coming-of-age story while also acquiring a great deal of understanding about the particularities of Spanish-speaking Africa.
Explicitly about overcoming traditional roles concerning gender and sexuality, La Bastarda makes a significant contribution to queer literary culture. The novel opens as Okomo’s grandfather, Osá, scolds her for persistently wishing to seek out her father and orders her to cut his toenails, a task that, according to her, “had hardened into my personal burden” (2). Through the metaphor of her grandfather’s toenails, Okomo reveals to the reader the gender hierarchy in her family, which belongs to the largest ethnic group in mainland Equatorial Guinea, the Fang people. These gendered roles continue as her grandfather explains that in Fang tradition your mother’s brother should take over the role as father in the absence of the biological one. However, Okomo’s uncle, Marcelo, is dubbed a “man-woman” because he will not impregnate another woman and is rumored to have intimate relations with other men. While Okomo is the story’s protagonist and narrator, Marcelo is also the target of homophobia, revealing how the traditional gender roles as well as normative expectations regarding sexuality in the novel affect both men and women. Okomo’s grandmother, complicit in the perpetuation of patriarchal tradition and female subjugation, constantly berates her for not already having found a male suitor because, according to tradition, a young girl’s most important goal is to catch a husband and start a family. Her grandmother always warns, “I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely” (4). In these first few pages, Okomo summons the reader into a suffocating patriarchal and heteronormative Fang community.
When I began to progressively lose my hearing at three years old, my mother fought for me to have access to both British Sign Language classes and speech therapy sessions, offering me a dual-language gateway. Through travel and education opportunities, I know phrases, sentences and expressions in other languages—both signed and spoken. But it is in English and BSL that I primarily express myself, code-switching when appropriate and, at times, combining the two together to speak SSE (Sign-supported English). This is sign language that follows English grammatical structure, as opposed to BSL structure. For those new to BSL, it can come as a surprise to discover that it is its own language, complete with its own rules, format and words—or rather signs—that have no direct equivalent in English.
And so, on a day-to-day basis, I communicate using my hands (signing), voice (speaking), and eyes (lip-reading), as a giver and a receiver. I enjoy the literal sound certain words make as they hold space in the air. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, I love the shape of language created by fingers, expressions and the body. People also underestimate the use of the whole body in sign language – though it is primarily through the hands that words are expressed; meaning, content and colour is amplified through other parts of the body, in particular, the face.
In recent days there have been not one, not two, but three controversies among Mexican writers, in which some very serious issues have been raised, even beyond questions of aesthetics: the use of public resources, class discrimination, corruption, racism. However, the news of the day has been dominated by Mexico’s national soccer team’s defeat in a match against Chile (the score: 7-0). Or perhaps the Father’s Day holiday. Or, for those who follow such things, the death of Anton Yelchin, a young Hollywood actor.
Not even the brutal repression of dissident teachers at the hands of armed federal forces in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, seems to merit as much debate, despite the seriousness of the event (to the point that the official communiqués either distort or minimize it, and important aspects of it are appearing first online or outside Mexico). But amid these news items, and those to emerge in the coming days, the three literary debates that I mentioned will soon be forgotten: they are but more filler in the news cycles on social media and the few other media outlets that have reported them.
What is certain is that these conflicts matter to almost no one: they do not resonate with anyone more than with the colleagues of those implicated, who jump in to defend a polemicist, to attack another, to complain about the general state of national literature (or the discussions of national literature); however, they barely manage to make themselves noticed beyond their own circles of friends.
In 1827, the seminal German humanist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—noting that literature was being shared across national borders of Europe and beyond—wrote the now-famous line: “the era of World Literature is at hand, everyone must do what they can to hasten its approach.”
We consider this quote the start of a global literary consciousness that shifted the conception of literature from a reflection of national character to a global phenomenon reflecting the (purportedly universal) human spirit. READ MORE…
Efpei I’m in Love by Nala Arung
The cover of Efpei I’m in Love, a poetry collection by Indonesian writer Nala Arung, announces that it is “a book of tasteless poetry.” And it is apparent from the outset that its tastelessness operates on multiple levels.
Its title is deliberately lowbrow—a take on the title of the wildly popular teenage chick-lit novel, Eiffel … I’m in Love, published in 2001 and adapted for film as a romantic comedy of the same name two years later.
The Efpei that has displaced the original Eiffel refers to the FPI, or Islamic Defenders’ Front. A hard-line Islamic vigilante organization, FPI has gained national notoriety for using violence to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. Its members often patrol areas for signs of un-Islamic activity, destroying property and beating up offenders. The organization has also attacked religious minorities, including Buddhists, Christians, and Ahmadi Muslims, whom they consider a heretical sect. FPI is certainly no laughing matter and hardly the stuff love poems are made of—or so it would seem until one reads the titular poem “FPI, I’m in Love.” READ MORE…
“For a long time, I went to bed early.”
With these words (in Lydia Davis’s translation), Marcel Proust began his exploration of memory and perception now known as In Search of Lost Time, formerly titled Remembrance of Things Past.
The two titles bookend a similar concept: was he actively seeking time that had somehow escaped, or was he more calmly remembering things that were simply no longer? Or was he splitting the difference: thinking his way out of the mirror dividing the two positions?
The past, it is said, is another country. Is translation, then, a form of time travel?