Linguistic Lamentations - Maybe Language Is Hard
English is my first language. People sometimes forget that after seeing me, hearing me speak; surprising, really, since my accent is more Surrey than most people I know, filled with silly affectations I picked up from storybook narrations on the radio. As I become a writer, adopting communication as my vocation it hits me over and over – English will always be my first language, my toolkit for encountering the world, and every time I am lost for words. Even now, as my summer-tanned hands type this text, I am realizing, recognizing, what little choice I have in the matter.
Literacy is a funny little thing. It’s a joke between us, the brown-british; I’m fluent in 3 languages, but illiterate in 2. We laugh it off, the group of us, in our mid-way accented attempts at communicating with ancestors we’ll never fully understand; sometimes, they learn English for our sake instead, since that’s so much easier. And now, here I am, unable to write in the languages of my skin, the poetry embedded in my genetics. Some writer I am.
I often think of the first time I forgot how to speak English. Late afternoon. I’m being screamed at; eighteen years old, kitchen knife aloft in my shaking hands. I can barely see my manager’s face, he’s so close to me, his volatile commands passing through my ears at speed. Pink-salmon roses atop the counter, wrapped and rolled, fish flesh placed atop piles of salted cream-cheesed crackers – I imagine the mouths that will crunch into them, gobbled down as they gabber their incomprehensible eloquences – my gloved hands fragranced with fish, his breath clouded in nicotine. Two hundred and forty cucumber slices, each a millimetre across, to be placed delicately on raw lamb, he demands. What’s a cucumber again? I can’t remember, my mind blanked entirely in anticipation of an answer, my head emptied of his language. I try to ground myself, look at the kitchenware around me – a chākū? is that what I’m holding? – disorientated by the steel-grey surfaces glaring cold sunlight into my eyes.
I’m frozen in this forgetting; he gives up on me, rolls his eyes and hands over the offending vegetable. I gaze at it, transfixed. Of course, of course that’s what is it; silly, stupid of me to forget. Double-blink, recentre yourself. You’re English, after all, aren’t you? Are you? I’ve never felt so alone in a kitchen before, accustomed instead to my mother’s company, bubbling oil on gas stoves, the tadkā sizzling away, cocooned in her tongues. Not theirs, their words for food relegated to the alphabet-books I studied as a child. A-for-Apple, B-for-Banana. I never use them. Every poem I’ve read about food-and-heritage-and-language-and-how-beautiful-they-are-together shows me bursts of yellow-orange turmeric, mango, spice, and I always wanted to live there, in that world (clichéd as it may be). Real life recommends home-words for home-things; my own home is filled with Marathi, a language he has never heard of. He’ll never know the sounds they make, the safety they gave me in that moment. I laughed the whole way home that day, free from English, even if just in that moment.
Of course, that could never last. It’s Marathi, Hindi, the smatterings of other languages picked up from varying aunties at get-together, that I’m more likely to forget; it’s inescapable, really, as I grow further and further away from my childhood homes. A year ago, I bought a book from a second-hand stall, written by Roger-something, to finally learn how to read my mother-tongue, a white paperback for white people, dog-eared at the pronunciation section (not that I’ve ever had any issues with that, thankfully). It lives nomadically, travelling across the brown coffee-tables in my parents’ living room, chai rings on suede sofas, as I traced out the pictures – the letters still look like illustrations to me – over and over in blue-black ink. B4U on the television; I learnt to speak my languages from cinema, from music. Maybe that’s why they’ve never felt more real.
Find the remote inside the sofa, change channels; we try to watch the news, anchors arguing on the plastic-covered flatscreen, screaming faintly at one another through the walls and I can’t help but laugh. Why do they shout so much? I guess I’ll just never understand, I’ll never get it, I can’t even read it. My eyes haze over, as I try focusing on the red-yellow-white characters flashing across my screen. The letters are so beautiful, so alien to me; scratches on screens, lights flickering again, astigmatic glare hiding the words from me. I wonder if I’ll ever see them as real letters. Even now, I barely understand them, blinking over at the words that flicker on the screen. Will I ever be able to read it? It rearranges itself into the shapes of characters I vaguely recognise; I trace the letters, over and over, embedding them in the recesses of my neurones. I am an alien, a ghost, any other cliché of othering you can apply to me. I am lost, transfixed in R-G-B patterns dancing, wishing I could just read, read as anyone else would. I look back down at my notebook, ink now smudged by my wayward left-hand. They’re still pictures, even now, but someday I’ll write as my family do.
This process of writing is incomplete, out of joint, unfinished. I will never learn my languages, your languages, enough to convey exactly how I feel to you; I can never speak into your head, steal your tongues and make them my own. The literacy-joke fell flat, you see. My head was colonised long before I was born, English marking my worth before I said my first words. I was always going to speak English. I was always going to write in English. A language of oppression and violence, beauty and poetry. I’ll never understand anything as well as I understand these words. I’m just me, I’m just a brain; there’s so many words I’ll never know, and that’s okay. I just express myself better in Marathi, you wouldn’t understand, I lie to myself, to you.
Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing; maybe none of this matters. I wonder, how many others have written about this before me? The clash, the cultures, being brown-indian-british-english-and so on, so many labels that never really applied to any of us. I can be a diasporic body that moves in English, I think. I doubt we’ll ever truly know how to navigate any of this, you and I, in this together. I’m embarking on a writing journey, art-making journey, all based in English and its nuances, its intricacies, that have lived in me longer than I have. This larynx is an English one. I can’t hold that against her, can I?
Niharika Pore (She/Her) is an artist and writer, working in prose-poetry, filmmaking, visual cultures research and critical theory. She currently works with community-led institutions across London through workshops, exhibitions and research projects, exploring her relationships with race, disability, and queerness.
Article co-edited by Inaya (she/her) - a London-based freelance writer and Project Associate at The Rights Collective. In her writing she explores themes such as culture, identity and politics, but when she is not writing about these things, she enjoys writing poetry and spoken word