Language: Beautiful and Dangerous and Funny and Full of Fuzzles!

Ngugi points out that when you write, you place your product on a shelf.  I think we sometimes forget that as writers; we get caught up in our own creative flow and conveniently forget that we are basically selling our thoughts and minds to the public–if they are interested enough to invest in us and our work.  In the video, the woman interviewing Ngugi brings up this concept of writing in one’s own mother tongue (which has already come up in our studies).  This idea is so appealing to me because it’s such a radical-seeming, subversive move on the part of the writer–certainly parallel to feminists shifting the spelling of the “women” or “woman” to “womyn.”  It’s in this way that writing itself becomes a symbol of progression, a beacon of resistance, and a celebration of resounding pride.

I listen to a “band” called Deep Forest–they are actually classified as a “music project.”  I believe it’s two French men, and they travel the world recording the sounds of aboriginal song, chanting, etc.  The pair mix their recordings with other music, and the result is the most earth-shatteringly beautiful music–it makes me feel very spiritual and connected to the earth (probably because it literally sounds like the earth is singing to/for you when you listen to Deep Forest).  The music is rich with tone, pitch, and fun instruments like the didgeridoo.  I have been listening to them for years, but it was only when I did a presentation on them for a World Music course as an undergraduate that I discovered how the music was crafted.  Insane.

I was blown away by Rushdie’s essay on “Commonwealth Literature” as it lacks any solid, consistent definition within the spectrum of literature “[b]ecause the term is not used simply to describe, or even misdescribe, but also to divide” (66).  Early in his piece, I was surprised and a bit disgusted to read about this headline which read “Commonwealth writers . . . but don’t call them that!” (61).  Whatever British publication used such wording seems ignorant and blatantly oblivious to their offensive language; it almost appears as a conscious or purposeful bitch slap in the face of these writers, an allusion to the publication’s glaring lack of respect, a moment of quiet jesting and poking fun at the “new kids on the block” who will always be new because they represent otherness.  I especially enjoy when he discusses this desire to package writers into a tidy box as he sarcastically describes himself as a “British-resident Indo-Pakistani writer” (67), and her powerful response is “So what now?” (67).  This is most likely the appropriate response for many of the writers who are grouped under “Commonwealth Writers.”  The very description of this group which Rushdie offers to us seems pulsating, flowing, progressive beyond its limiting, misfit label.

I was so delighted to find that Lewis Carroll (of all people!) plays a role in Rushdie’s “The Courter.”  Oh my.  I am an Alice fan–and all these fun Alice references sort of poking at us!  He is, here, called “the Dodo,” a character seen in the Alice stories, which also play with language themselves, just as Rushdie’s piece clearly does.  The cherry on this is the Dodo’s housekeeper, Mrs. Liddell.  The character of Alice is based on a little girl Carroll knew, named Alice Liddell (who is actually considered to have been a living muse, and is actually very little, but then rather large, allegedly representing Carroll’s desire for her to grow up so that they could be together)!  Phew!  I love you, saggy Dodo.

We get to know two of these characters as Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up as a way of reinforcing this idea that language (and, in this case, nicknames) is powerful and works as a way of building relationships not only amongst characters but between them and us, the readers.  Porter becomes Courter for Certainly-Mary not simply because she cannot pronounce p’s (rather, letters have a mind of their own), but because “this courter, this he would try to be” (177) as they continued their unique courting rituals such as games of chess.

A comedic/tragic moment of linguistic/cultural confusion takes place when the narrator’s father “asked did she [the pharmacy girl] have any nipples, and she slapped my face” (183).  This isolated incident reflects the aloneness one or one’s family can feel due to language barriers.  On page 189, we are told that Certainly-Mary translates what she yells for Mixed-Up out of courtesy–when I had a boyfriend from Puerto Rico (boricua), I became immensely irritated when he failed to translate fast-paced dialogue for me because of this general, common-sense consideration for other people present.  I think a failure to do so sort of communicates a dismissiveness or even disrespect of another person’s tongue.  Rushdie’s language itself throughout this short story is gentle, plodding, patient, and joyful.  Chess, which I briefly mention above, “had become their [Certainly-Mary and Mixed-Up] private language” (194), which seems important as we examine language this week.  Just as this elderly pair communicate through a game not based upon change, but strategy rather, the narrator and the Dodo engage in a playful power struggle by way of intense chess-playing.  Chess has come to be recognized as a game which represents power, status, and superiority.  I was caught by Mary’s use of the word “fuzzles” (195–I assumed it was most likely a neologism and only meant to convey a sense or tone rather than anything lucid (which is the most appropriate adjective here, I think, because Mary is in love, which is impossible to convey to others without the help of improvisational words which translate feelings or sensations rather than images).

Mary eventually leaves because “it was England that was breaking her heart, breaking it by not being India” (209).  I love Rushdie’s voice!  This is my first time reading him, although I did see him speak years ago at Temple.  He told us that he had to place mattresses against his windows because of the threat of gunfire.  I also vaguely recall something about his insistence that Allah was not real…some sort of remark that Muslims found outrageous and insulting.  Anyway, this is such a beautiful sentence and poetic shifting in events as the story closes.  England is England, and it simply can’t not be, regardless of her inhabitants’ wishes.  On the last page, Rushdie writes, “I . . . have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day, pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose” (211).  I have always thought that to experience more than one culture as part of one’s identity, or even dual citizenship, is liberating, and to declare that we are far more intricate and more complicated to explain than with one set of cultural norms, traditions, and rituals.  However, our narrator describes this as a dilemma, a set of heavy chains which insistently pull, reminding him that they are there, tied to him forever.  To my relief, he tells us in the next paragraph, “I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear, I kick.  Ropes, I do not choose between you.  Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both.  Do you hear?  I refuse to choose” (211).  Like a horse who refuses to be tamed, our narrator breaks these ropes and doesn’t look back.

This idea of abrogation from our Po-Co Studies brought to mind the dialect of ebonics–used by many African Americans and others and not considered to be “proper” or “correct” by many.  We read that “the use of the colonialist’s language inescapably imprisons the colonized within the colonizer’s conceptual paradigms – the view that ‘you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools’” (4).  We’ve discussed this idea already, and I admire writers like Ngugi for continuing to write in his mother tongue and then simply allowing his work to be translated.  I immediately think of ebonics but realize that this is a dialect and not its own language.  The text mentions, then, that “Brathwaite takes pains to distinguish nation language from ‘dialect’, which . . . is thought of as ‘bad English’, the kind of English used in caricature and parody” (134).  When I took Linguistics, a student from class asked our professor why ebonics is not simply considered lazy, or, in this case, “bad English,” and, admittedly, I felt the same way.  Our professor asked us that when we say “I’m” in place of “I am,” is this considered to be lazy as well?

Ngugi’s essay “The Language of African Literature” was sad an moving, but also liberating, I’d imagine.  If the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s here that we see that idea at work.  To read a firsthand account detailing the flunking of students for essentially being too African or perhaps not European enough was appalling.  It seems that these types of standards were put in place under the guise of “tough love,” the nauseating “you’ll thank me later” type arrangement for these African school children.  I think one of the most important things Ngugi tells us is on the first page of his text.  “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment” (143).  Within the anecdote Ngugi relays to us about his early school days, these students didn’t have that choice, a choice, really, about their national and personal identity as it is situated within their community, their social circles, and their culture.

On a final note, I always love poetry.  It seems like “A Latin Primer” is a colonization narrative of sorts, judging from the mention of language and the images of light and dark, which are obviously heavily layered with meaning.  This concept of “distant literatures” (1736, line 8) references this hullaballoo regarding what literature is and isn’t.  What is African language and literature?  How about when it expresses Americanism?  What is Americanism?  Who decides these things?  Are they arbitrary at best, eurocentric and racist at worst?  I think my favorite stanza reads “then found my deepest wish / in the swaying words of the sea, / and the skeletal fish / of that boy is ribbed in me” (1736, lines 17-20).  I always absorb any mention of the sea with unrestrained joy and, at times, a naive thirst for the cliche; however, this poem is anything but cliche.  We know that the ocean is a place of origins, of beginnings, and the opportunity to return to the strange and beautiful, primordial environment which, deep down, we all seek.  These are the words swaying, whispering, speaking to the boy as he stands in the water, which I always love to remind people, is our mother.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Sean Weaver says:

    I’m glad you are as much in love with Rushdie’s work as I am!!! I think that he has a gift for words and language, and is the best writer that has walked the face of the Earth. I guess you could say he’s my idol! I’m glad you enjoyed “The Courter” because I had just as much fun reading it again as I did the first time. Did you also notice that at times it was really difficult to pinpoint All Mixed up’s nationality? Where as we get a clear understanding that the narrator, Certainly-Mary, and his family are Indian. P.s I had no idea that characters from “The Courter” were based of Lewis Caroll’s work!!! SOO COOOL, thanks for sharing!! I particularly enjoyed your passage on linguistics, and the question of whether or not Ebonics is just plain lazy or bad English. I have never had a linguistics class, which I’m now sad I haven’t. I never really ever thought of bad English that way. I always thought bad English was not using proper forms of verbs, mispellings…etc. I never took dialect into consideration. I also noticed how you examined how Nguigi links national identity to language. AHH!! It’s so confusing because nationality, culture, and language seemed to be repeatedly wrapped up into one coterminous concept!! It’s hard to understand where one ends and the other begins!!! P.s. one more time, I loved reading this post and the way in which you analyzed “The Courter.”

  2. cturn215 says:

    I agree with the both of you about Rushdie! I *loved* “The Courter”, in fact I loved it so much that I sat down and read “East/West” in its entirety in one sitting. Jenny, I think your analysis of this story is spot on (Gold Star for you! Oh wait, is that ghettoizing?). I, too, caught the Alice in Wonderland allusions, although I wasn’t sure of their significance at that the time, but now I think I have it. The narrator is transported into a sort of liminal world between India and England, where his speech is English but not quite British, tinged with Indian inflection and idioms but dominated by Western currents (he experiences his emotions and expresses them by hearing popular music run through his head; popular Western music, that is). He is both too big and too small for the ropes which pull him “this way and that”(211). Even the terms “lassos and lariats” smack of Western influence: the frontier, the cowboy, the marauding murderer of Native Americans. The English thugs, despite their profanity, speak perfectly, which bespeaks a sort of linguistic caste system at work in Britain.

    W/R/T Ebonics: I remember arguing with my parents about this. We are from Philadelphia, and there is a very specific Philly dialect with which my entire family speaks (and which I speak, when I get drunk or tired enough not to unconsciously curtail my tongue). I remember explaining to them that ebonics was a dialect, not unlike our own, and that anyway, it wasn’t any of our business how groups of people chose to speak. They were offended by the very fact that a group of people would REJECT dominant/normative linguistic paradigms for a particular cultural vocabulary; how dare they reject our language? I had to remind them that actually, it isn’t even *our* language, that if my great grandparents had remained in Ireland then we would actually all be speaking Gaelic (until the Loyalists trashed our houses and set fire to our garbage cans in the name of linguistic imperialism, that is).

    I agree that Rushdie’s tone is both joyful and sad. I would suggest reading “The Free Radio” and “At The Auction of The Ruby Slippers” if you have time, as they contain more of what I am now understanding to be Rushdie’s classic trope of subtle symbolism.

  3. clutzclemens says:

    I will be the third to agree. What an excellent reading of “The Courter.” I have read it so many times, and you have opened up my eyes to the Alice references. I look forward to reading that book to Ev and will think of Rushdie now. It thrills me to know you hadn’t read Rushdie before and you are already liking his work. I find his writing to be exciting, confounding, and rich with possibility. I work with his novel _Shame_ in my dissertation and have been fighting with an article about it for years–he leaves me in the classical scholar’s position: realizing that the more I learn, the more I see that I don’t know.

    You write beautifully about language. Really. So clear and eloquent.

    And we will be reading more of _East/West_ later in the semester, so Cait is ahead of the game now!

  4. Sean says:

    RUSHDIE RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Maria Holder says:


    I must agree with everyone else and chime in about the beauty of the language in your post…honestly, I cried after reading it. In fact, I sobbed. I am still trying to figure out why, but I think it had something to do with Rushdie’s “The Courter” and how reading it made my heart break for Sir Mixed Up-A-Lot and Certainly-Mary, but your analysis of Walcott’s poem was what made me well up with the emotional waters of longing. My sobs came like waves, and the image of the sea as our mother-my mother-resounded in me and hit me like a tsunami. I am realizing as I write this that I, too, am torn between East and West. My own mother lives on the west coast. I am, obviously, on the east coast. I miss her terribly. I want to run to her, but I can’t. I have a career, a relationship, and a master’s degree to finish. But alas, I diverge.

    Let me get back to my response to your post. I agree with Dr. Clemens; you have a way with words. I look forward to your future posts. You speak to something primordial, “deep down,” inside of me- inside of us all. Keep writing- it is what you should do.

  6. lotusgurl says:

    You guys are so lovely, I can’t stand it!

  7. clutzclemens says:

    Great comments, everyone!

  8. laurentocci says:

    I am sorry this reply is coming in a little late from last week.

    I didn’t catch on to the Alice references either. I think it’s great you brought that into the conversation. It really brought another dimension to “The Courter”. I didn’t think I could possibly love that text more.

    Your discussion of ebonics was something that was on my mind during last week’s readings. I remember as an undergrad at KU I took an education course and one of the sections dealt with authentic voice. The idea from this professor was that the importance of grammatical structure was miniscule compare to a student being able to write dialectically as they desired. She argued that authentic voice came from authentic thought. Therefore, if you allow a student to write as they think it, you would get their most original ideas.Those are ideas I have kept with me.

  9. lotusgurl says:

    Yeah, I was delighted to find him nestled in the story like that! So odd and wonderful! I’ll simply call him “the Dodo” from this day forward.

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