wo te twi?
ou pale kreyol?
a few weeks ago, i spent a snowy saturday afternoon at Vanessa Mártir‘s personal essay writing workshop, Writing Our Lives. the workshop was held in a lecture hall of NYU law school’s furman hall, complete with leather armchairs and tiered seating. it was the first time since last june, at the Voices of Our Nation Arts Workshop at the University of Miami, that i found myself surrounded primarily by artists and writers of color. the physical environments of those two instances could not have been more different: one a subzero day in greenwich village, snow falling in sheets out the window as we wrote, another a slow steamy day in miami, where the temperature and humidity fogged our fiction workshop’s windows and wall lizards ran around on every porch. it was a decidedly dope atmosphere of creation and conversation, and it reminded me that there is a reason that i have decided to commit myself to my writing this year.
Vanessa had us read several essays in preparation for class. Mary Ann Thompson’s “The Practice of Forgetting” comes to mind when i consider my own topic this week: language. in her essay, Thompson talks about her relationship to her family through their names, through their religion, through her Ammachi, and particularly through her relationship to Malayalam, the language that they all speak.
After four glasses of wine, our slurred words form questions we don’t want to remember.
“So, what are you going to do next year?” Jesse asks me. She looks out the window as she washes dishes. Only without eye contact can I tell certain truths.
“I want to go to India,” I answer.
“And do what?” she says.
“I want to just get a one-way ticket and stay there until I know Malayalam. Until I’m actually fluent. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I think I’m going to stay out of the country for about a year.” There, I said it. My secret desires, my dreams, the only thing I truly regret in life is out in the open.
“But why do you want to learn Malayalam?” Jesse continues scrubbing dishes. Malayalam, the language of my parents’ histories, of tea merchants and fisherman, of coffee estates and hills filled with pineapples, of buffalo and birthing calves, of Communists and protesters. Malayalam, a language I can barely speak.
like Thomas, i speak neither of my parents’ languages—haitian creole nor twi—with any degree of fluency. i do speak a modicum of french, but that honestly has me all up in my diasporic and colonized feelings more often than not.
i have been wanting to apply for dual citizenship with ghana for the past few years, and this desire has been [exacerbated] by our current political climate. i want to buy a one-way flight to kumasi, the garden city of ghana, and stay until i speak twi as well as my father and his family do. i am unable to apply for a haitian passport without relinquishing my american one (thanks, america!), but i entertain similar daydreams of following my grandmother to port au prince and saut d’eau one winter, never to fucking return.
i talk and think a lot about loss and forgetting on this blog (it seems early to be talking about greater blog themes, doesn’t it?), whether it’s in relation to my pre-transition past life or the spiritual and support systems of my ancestors. one of these things that i don’t want to forget or lose is access to my ancestors’ stories. i didn’t know anything about my paternal grandfather until i was in my late teens (i still don’t know much about him). i didn’t know my maternal grandfather had 2 brothers and a military father until last month. i didn’t know my paternal grandmother (whose birthname i share) was a child of the ashanti royal family until last week.
i felt none of this as strongly as i did when my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. i was not “out” to her as queer at the time, and i felt at a complete loss about how to communicate with her – about our lives, through a mutually intelligible language. i was definitely all in my feelings about our language in an essay i wrote that year, during my junior year at NYU. it was the semester i returned from studying away in accra:
I often found that people in Ghana—saleswomen arranging oranges at the market, men playing mancala on the street—were grossly offended by my inability to speak Twi . . . My resentment towards my father for not teaching me Twi is naïve and self- centered to be sure. After all, what do I know of the immigrant’s imagination,of wanting your child to be normal and American and to assimilate.
i keep finding myself thinking of half of a yellow sun, when olanna and odenigbu return to their former home in post-war nsukka to find that all of odenigbu’s books have been burned. it feels all the more potent now, when our president-elect has repeatedly made his disdain for nonwhite immigrants very plain. POTUS’s vocal, obvious disdain for immigrants (who in many cases, i think, might have rather stayed in their homes) mirrors that of mary ann thompson’s white friend in her essay. why go to india? she asks. why not just forget?
i refuse to forget.
i think i will use the POTUS’s disdain for my people as a catalyst for my escape—and if not a literal escape, than a linguistic one. i will depart the confines and violences of the english and french languages, plumbing deeper into my sanctuaries of twi and haitian creole.
anyone know a good duolingo class?