OPINION Eluned Gramich

NWR Issue r14

Writing the Mother Tongue

aussenraum / outside area

so many languages
hide beneath your trees
in the secret corners of your alleys
and in the well which, in winter, is boarded up.
they're looking for a place
an area between declinations and
separable verbs
but they are here.
we are here.
María Reimóndez (Trans from the German by Eluned Gramich)

María Reimóndez speaks seven languages. I try to count them: Galician, Spanish, Portuguese, Tamil, English, German, French, but there might be more I don't know about. She has even written a poetry collection in German – her third language – which I quote above. She is the first person I've met who has chosen to write creatively in a language other than her mother tongue. But meeting her in India, a country where people speak a minimum of three languages, I was no longer surprised.

I met her at the Hyderabad Literary Festival, a megacity in south-east India, where was giving a reading alongside several other poets. Two of them, Victor Sugbo and Duma Solinggay, were from the Philippines, and presented work in their native languages, Waray and Kankanaey. There were other Philippine authors in the audience, who spoke Mindano and Cebuano, yet the languages were so different that they couldn't follow the Philippine poetry being read on stage. Only a Spanish novelist picked out a colonial word or two – Zapatos, for instance (shoes) because there was no need for zapatos on the islands before the Spanish came.

Having studied in the USA, Victor Sugbo's most fluent language was English, as he had forgotten much of his mother tongue, Waray. When he returned home, he decided to relearn it in the hope of writing poetry in Waray; because, he explained, poetry should be written in your mother tongue, no matter the level of your fluency. This surprised me at first (why write in a language in which you know you are deficient?); and then moved me (why write in English just so you can have an easy time?). Waray, he said, once had a broad and beautiful lexicon, but due to globalisation and centralised education, it had shrunk. For Sugbo, it is a poet's duty to retain and expand the language. Yet he also continues to write in English, alternating freely between the two.

Dumay Solinggay, a 26-year old woman, also writes in English and Kankanaey: an indigenous language of north Philippines. There were sounds in her reading that I'd never heard before: a kind of expressive stopping and breathing, mixed with measured, musical tones. In her English poetry, there are lines like: 'You have left some remnants / Of future memories. / They hang loose on my hair / blown by the cool breeze of June / brought by the unpronounced rain.' Dumay was wearing a mixture of indigenous, western and Indian clothing – a tanned skirt, striped belt, T-shirt and a cotton print shawl: an emblem of the festival's inclusive and supportive spirit. When a Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane read a poem describing the experience of Australian Aboriginal people ('they keep us locked away like / Dark secrets') Solinggay openly wept on stage.

At the end, an audience member remarked that she'd enjoyed the original, native language readings more than the English, even though she hadn't understood them. This made me wonder. It suggested, perhaps, that the English was sterile where the indigenous languages were better or more interesting for being exotic. Yet the concerns of the Waray and Kankanaey poems were pressingly modern and personal, and were not solely a vehicle to discuss indigenous or minority language rights. The assumption is that poetry from smaller nations or languages should always be negotiating with the themes and politics of those places, but this reading showed that was not the case. Instead, the poets demonstrated an openness and freedom in the movement between native language, the colonial (Spanish, in this case) and the globally dominant language, English. It undid the unwritten rules of translation (always translate into your mother language) and of creative writing (always write in your most fluent language).

It also challenged the idea that the mother tongue is best. There was a fixation with originality that came up again and again in the discussions we had in India with audiences and readers: the idea that to submit your text to translation, or to write in more than one language, is to somehow muddy the waters. Even among writers here in Wales, there's still a sense that there is 'one' language – Welsh or English – that is your true writing language. By ascribing to this idea, we imbue the writer's words with an exaggerated sanctity and risk shutting down experimentation. What stayed with me at the end of the reading was this: that a person can write beautifully in a native language, a learned language, or a relearned language.

Eluned Gramich’s memoir of Hokkaido, Japan, Woman Who Brings the Rain was published by our imprint New Welsh Rarebyte and was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year last summer, having won the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2015.

Eluned's Indian visit was instigated by Literature Across Frontiers.

Eluned Gramich (second from R) at Hyderabad Literature Festival, India


previous opinion: Valley, City, Village


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