Ahead of a key panel at Byron Writers Festival 2023 with Anna Funder and Pip Williams, Northern Rivers author Sally Colin-James examines how a conscious awareness of linguistic diversity can open hearts, cultivate meaningful human connection and help expose power structures inherent in monolingual culture.
When I was living in London in my early twenties, my Burmese-English friend, Cherry, voiced a private realisation. ‘I’ve started thinking in English, not Burmese,’ she said.
As a young Australian with minimal multilingual exposure, the notion was explosive. I tried to read her face and eyes, searching for signs of how she felt, of how I should therefore respond. But nothing in my own monolingual thinking could accommodate any appropriate insight. It was a moment of patent inadequacy that triggered a turning point in my thinking about literacy. An equal sense of shame and fascination at the privileges and shortcomings of my English language. In retrospect, it formed the bedrock of my writing life by rousing two burning questions: in what ways does speaking and thinking in the dominant language of English thwart a literacy that desires multilingual connection? And how can I, as a monolingual speaker and writer, address, honour and participate in multilingual truths? I began to see my literacy as carrying this responsibility.
It is this ‘responsibility’ – or lack thereof – that Anna Funder and Pip Williams examine in Wifedom and The Bookbinder of Jericho respectively. Both authors are grappling with what it means to ‘give voice’ in the dominant language of English. A language that has often striven for – and achieved – the opposite. Subjugation. Silence. I can see that, like me, they wrangle with privileges wrought – both intrinsically and extrinsically – by our shared language. Funder with her determination to ameliorate patriarchal biographers’ erasure of Eileen Blair (nee O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife); and Williams through her early 1900s bookbinder, Peggy Jones, who dreams of an Oxford Education but is told her ‘job is to bind the books, not read them’.
In their contemporary Edwardian-Windsor worlds, Eileen Blair and Peggy Jones share the same language as their male peers, but not the same privileges. Through them we see not only the force of ‘English’ upon what is considered ‘other’, but one that acts within the very layers of the language use itself. As both authors argue and demonstrate, it’s not only whole words but whole people who can blur and even vanish under the duress of a dominant language and the culture – or gender – that wields it.
My novel One Illumined Thread traverses three eras of distinct language and literacy. A modern Australian textile conservator oppressed by domestic abuse, the Italian wife of a famous 1500s Renaissance artist struggling with debts incurred by her husband, and a mother in 40 BCE Judea striving for agency under Herod’s brutal rule. It is the story of three women separated by centuries but united by a singular creative spirit. But it is also a personal quest to give voice to women obscured, minimised, oppressed or forgotten by history.
One of many research challenges was to ensure that in ancient Judea, Elisheva of Aharon, spoke the Aramaic contemporaneous with her world. The first Aramaic specialist I engaged fell ill, and only pure instinct caused me to doubt the second translator’s work. When Aramaic, Hebrew and non-Semitic language specialist Nahum Ben Yehuda took over, his anguish at reading the misguided translations led him to exclaim: ‘You’ve been duped!’
His verdict is convincing. Because while language itself arguably consists of inert, impartial characters in time and space, the manipulation of these characters is what creates meaning… and bias. Herein lies the power of ‘the literate’. And where power and privilege can cast the longest shadows.
As Funder draws Eileen Blair from her husband Orwell’s shadow, she reveals that, despite his clever literacy, Orwell himself and his biographers specialise in ‘theft-and-erasure’. A mechanism where Eileen, as his wife, is acknowledged for small contributions to his life, in effect, erasing the significant ones. Not least her imaginative ideas and editing that enriched Orwell’s work. Likewise the work of Peggy Jones’s bookbinding – the folding, the stitching – is rendered invisible when the books are, literally, ‘covered’. In both cases the women are subject to a production of language that disguises and hides and casts aside. It is brutal exclusion exercised by literacy.
Peggy knows she’s been duped. But does Eileen?
Elisheva of Aharon speaks a specific Aramaic. When I imagine her calling for her mother, what I hear is: EE-mah. However, in English text the word is spelled ‘Emma’. A ubiquitous girl’s name. In the production of a novel, I’d worried that the printed word in its correct translation would distract a reader from the sense of Elisheva’s language-world. That if I used the same-sounding Hebrew ‘Imma’, it would avoid the confusion of ‘Emma’ as an English-looking word. I was distraught and torn. How could the wrong word be the right answer? It was one of many times I would confront the research conflict I’ve termed: accuracy versus sensitivity.
The Emma-Imma question raised others: what would I call my ‘mum’ if the word no longer existed? If familiar nouns disappeared, how would I describe and remember the sound of my mum’s voice? Her green eyes? Her touch? How would I describe my love for my family? Or the light and colour of a sunset? What would happen to my story? My-story? Mystory. A single vowel between all I know and what might become: mystery.
The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation says ‘First Languages are disappearing at a faster rate [in Australia] than anywhere in the world despite a universal acknowledgment that language plays a vital role in the health, wellbeing, education and future of Indigenous peoples’.
The Foundation’s work is critical and clear: ‘making connections between Indigenous Australian First Language and English is vital.’ Across ninety countries, 350 million Indigenous people share a unique language and literacy.
A Northern Territory Warumungu Elder’s words on a First Languages focus speaks loudest:
‘I am alive again. Listen! Language is life. You have given me language. You have given me life. I am alive again.’
How can I help build connections between Indigenous Australian First Language and English?
To heed the Elder’s words is to also reckon with the shame of what is already lost.
Language is life.
I yearn to hear the words spoken by the Warumungu Elder in her First Language. To hear her tones and inflections. The emphases of her voice. To watch the shape of her mouth, the shifting expressions in her face. The flex and release of her jaw, of her throat. The inhale, the exhale, of her breath.
The losses caused by a dominant language far exceed words.
Funder says, ‘Finding [Eileen] held the possibility of revealing how [power] works on women: how a woman can be buried first by domesticity and then by history.’
In Williams’s bookbinding world, both Peggy’s work and dreams of education are buried. Then – at last! – Peggy finds herself inside the school library she has long-yearned to enter. But it is not under the circumstances she imagined. And I felt broken-hearted fury as Peggy walks past shelf after shelf of books she’s been told not to read, wondering ‘how long it would take me to find a book with pages I had folded, gathered, sewn.’
Peggy is bound to but deemed separate from the literate world she helps create.
The perforations in history echo with the creativity of women.
The women in One Illumined Thread are embroiderers, paint-makers, glass artists. Women whose diligent, delicate, furious industry deliver an imprint of selfhood carried within their creations. The articulation of their finger joints, their wrists; the arc in their spines as they bend over their work; the whispered breath of shared secrets, of lullabies, as weaving reeds are passed from hand to hand, as needles are threaded. In every expression, breath. A breath smothered, choked and extinguished by a language that privileged the actions of men.
This breath, to me, is the precious subtext of all language. I see and hear Eileen, Peggy and Elisheva and their worlds, but I also feel them breathing. The rise and fall of their chests with mine.
I am alive again.
In her article ‘What is Language Extinction and Why Should We Care?’, Lauren Johnson draws on findings from endangered language specialists, UNESCO and global indigenous studies to reveal the life and death effect on individuals, communities and the earth with the loss of diverse languages. With this loss, she reports, comes a direct loss of knowledge specific to unique environments.
‘A world that discourages diversity, whether biological, cultural or linguistic, is probably not a very resilient one. Just as no one person has all the answers, no one culture has all the answers.’
With literacy comes responsibility. Not simply to be heard but to hear.
It’s likewise a responsibility to question the very language in which we are speaking and listening. And not only the literal ABC of what is overt, but what is hidden behind the letters, the words, the sentences. To search for what moves and shifts and breathes between the spaces.
To find Eileen in the texts she has been erased from, Funder read Orwell’s Homage ‘backwards and forwards, knowing … who was there but isn’t in the text.’ She began to ‘read’ differently. Keeping an eye on ‘the way the text buckles and strains to avoid her is the way I can see the shape [Eileen] left.’
After five years away, I visited Cherry’s family on a return trip to London. I remember her father, Gordon, his checked purple sarong wrapped around his waist, waving enthusiastically from the front doorstep.
The Burmese greeting is ‘Mingala’.
I knew the word. Its rich sentiments: ‘Hello and happiness to you’.
Why didn’t I use it?
When we said our goodbyes, Gordon smiled the infectious smile inherited by his daughter.
‘You look ten years younger!’ he announced. ‘Because you found your true love.’
He was right. The man I’d travelled with is now my husband.
I’d laughed, waved farewell and said, ‘Thank you, Gordon!’
‘Gordon’ was his name, but how I wish I’d called him ‘Ulay’. The Burmese term of respect and endearment for ‘uncle’ or ‘elder’. Others in our circle of friends used both ‘Ulay’ and ‘Adaw’ when addressing Cherry’s father and mother.
Why didn’t I speak it?
When he died from COVID, the gap left by my unspoken word widened.
As a monolingual human, the simple exchange of one word for another held the power to address, honour and participate in a multilingual truth. It would have held a meaning more vast, more complex, than the literal because it would have identified ‘Gordon’ as more than Gordon. Speaking ‘Ulay’ is to speak of him as the cherished father of my precious friend, as a respected elder in my life. As the man who knew I’d found my true love. ‘Ulay’ bestows acknowledgment and status. It is the bridge between his humanity and my own.
Does this choice to not speak a simple, single word, expose a fundamental example of how a dominant language can thwart a literacy that cultivates connection? That facilitates meaning and human connection? My answer is: yes. And I also see that it is a dangerous example because, on the surface, it seems benign.
‘Ulay’ is a doorway to a rich, complex story. Gordon’s story, his daughter’s story and my story and the point at which they intersect. Without it, rich arteries of connection are cut.
This is the privilege and power of language.
As Funder asks: Now what?
Unlike Cherry, my thoughts have always been in English.
Can I buckle and strain this text in my head, on this page, to build connections between my monolingual thinking and engage with life-affirming – life-giving – multilingual truths?
For Ulay, for the Warumungu elder, for 350 million humans with a unique language and literacy, I must try.
Footnotes: ALNF https://alnf.org/program/firstlanguages/, ibid ALNF. Please note: the name of the Warumungu Elder has been omitted for reasons of cultural respect.
Sally Colin-James will appear with Anna Funder and Pip Williams on the panel Language, Privilege and Power at Byron Writers Festival 2023.
Sessions accessible via a 1-Day or 3-Day festival pass, available to purchase at www.byronwritersfestival.com/tickets