27 April 2010

Language and culture

I'm preparing for my lecture tomorrow at UC Berkeley on why learning the Filipino language (or any other Philippine language) is important if a non-Filipino is to truly understand Filipino culture.  I intend to talk about everyday greetings such as "How are you?", which Americans routinely answer with "I'm good."  The same greeting in Filipino ("Kamusta?") is answered in various ways, depending on the actual state of the responder.  What is merely throat-clearing or a polite icebreaker for Americans is a real expression of concern (answered by an honest description of one's emotional state at the moment) for Filipinos.  From there, I intend to go into deeper ways to penetrate Philippine culture through language (or languages).  From everyday language to literature is a big step, but if the students attending the lecture turn out to be more sophisticated than the average student, we could go into multilingual literary criticism.

25 April 2010

Freezing in New York

I've been in New York City for the past five days, which is my excuse for not blogging.  (It's New York!  You wouldn't want to be in front of your computer in New York, would you?)  I'm not sure there is a more multilingual city in the world.  So far, I have not yet boarded a taxi driven by a man speaking in English.  (Since the taxis here feature a GPS for the passenger, there is no reason to feign ignorance of English just to get more money off tourists.)  From the taxi drivers, as well as from people on the streets, I've heard easily 7 or 8 different languages.  To write in only one language about New York would clearly be a violation of that age-old principle that art should mirror life.

20 April 2010

Poetry and climate change

Since the buzz phrase nowadays is “climate change,” here is part of Albert B. Casuga's poem “Umberto and Edo de Brazil” that uses more than one language to warn us that flooding threatens everyone, not just those that speak any one language:

Was it the surprise of a wayward downpour
stopped her from her frolic in the sea?
Or was it the intruding pall ruined her mark
of the sun, gone from the sky, gone from the sea?
Lluvia! Lluvia! She warned anyone who cared
to listen --- the beach frolic rolled unabated.

Notice that had the poet used the English "Rain! Rain!" instead of the Spanish "Lluvia! Lluvia!" the jolt intended by both the woman and the poet would have been lost.  Additionally, the rhythm would have suffered, because the monosyllabic "Rain" would have shortened the line.  Cleverly, the poet justifies the use of non-English words in an English poem by the characters in the narrative.  Such justification works better with readers used to monolingual poetry, but is not necessary for readers more attuned to multilingual writing.

The theme of the poem, of course, is enhanced by the use of more than one language.  The poem dramatically presents the peculiarity of today's weather conditions, brought about by climate change (something the whole world experiences and caused).

18 April 2010

David Maillu

I wonder if the lack of serious critical appreciation of the fiction of David Maillu stems not so much from his being popular (there still being a kind of prejudice on the part of mainstream literary critics against commercially successful fiction) or from his philosophy and politics (not exactly the timid kinds), but from his mixing of languages in his writing.  In 1998, J. Roger Kurtz and Robert M. Kurtz set out to install Maillu in the canon of African literature (literature, not just popular literature) in an article entitled "Language and Ideology in Postcolonial Kenyan Literature:  The Case of David Maillu's Macaronic Fiction."  Their efforts appear to have gained some ground for Maillu fans (see the amusing take in Creative Ventures on Maillu's political crusade).  Maillu himself seems to thrive on alienating high-end critics.  Reports Evan Maina Mwangi in Africa Writes Back to Self:  Metafiction, Gender, Sexuality (2009):  "David Maillu playfully named one of his texts Unfit for Human Consumption (1973), and another of his works advertised in its title that it is about the Kommon Man (1975), complete with a misspelling, to align itself against the university-educated elites."  Just as everything personal is political, everything linguistic is also political - and vice-versa.

16 April 2010

Kashmiri literature

Here's a challenge for young Indian literary critics looking for a niche for themselves.  Study the way languages interact with each other to create new literary frontiers in Kashmiri writing.  This was the situation in 1911 as painted by the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

"Kashmiri possesses a somewhat extensive literature, which has been very little studied. The missionary William Carey published in 1821 a version of the New Testament (in the Sarada character), which was the first book published in the language. In 1885 the Rev. J. Hinton Knowles published at Bombay a collection of Kashmiri proverbs and sayings, and K. F. Burkhard in 1895 published an edition of Mahmud Gami's poem on Yusuf and Zulaikha. This, with the exception of later translations of the Scriptures in the Persian character and a few minor works, is all the literature that has been printed or about which anything has been written. Mahmud Gami's poem is valuable as an example of the Kashmiri used by Mussulmans."

How has multilingual literary criticism progressed in India since 1911?  T. N. Kaul gives an update for the Kashmiri Overseas Association, but the situation does not look much better than it did in 1911.  The description remains on the level of mere description, not of analysis.  We still need serious literary analysis of Kashmiri works based on the mixing of languages.

13 April 2010

Launch of a Festschrift

You are invited to the launch of Inter/Sections: Isagani R. Cruz and Friends, edited by David Jonathan Y. Bayot (published by Anvil Publishing for De La Salle University), at Powerbooks, Greenbelt, Makati, Philippines, on 15 April, Thursday, 5 to 6 p.m. Contributors to the book are: Gayatri Spivak, Catherine Belsey, Marjorie Perloff, Christopher Norris, E. San Juan Jr., Virgilio S. Almario, Alfred A. Yuson, Gemino H. Abad, Caroline Hau, Frank G. Rivera, Kathryn VanSpanckeren, Sharon Delmendo, Marilyn Atlas, Paulino Lim Jr., Cirilo F. Bautista, Soledad S. Reyes, Ma. Lourdes S. Bautista, Edna Z. Manlapaz, Tereso S. Tullao Jr., Rolando B. Tolentino, Rosario Cruz Lucero, Vicente Garcia Groyon, Shirley Lua, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Ma. Lourdes Jacob, Gerardo Z. Torres, Edwina Carreon, Dinah Roma Sianturi, Ronald Baytan, Genevieve L. Asenjo, and Jose Wendell Capili. The book will be relaunched in Los Angeles, California, USA, on 30 April, 6-8 p.m. (venue TBA), after a lecture by Dr. Cruz at UCLA.

11 April 2010

Taiwan's "combination language"

A 2007 thesis gives us more insight into the Taigi literature debates:

"Another emphasis in Peng’s [Rui-Jin, 1991] article was the discussion of combination language. He believed that in the future, the language for Taiwan literature might be the combined language of Taiwan history and practical elements. The current languages such as Hakkanese, Minnanyu, indigenous languages, and Mandarin might be mixed to give rise to be a new language of Taiwan. He mentioned the 'Trilogy of A Chilly Night' by Li Ciao and 'Lang Tao Sha' by Dong Fang-Bai, both as works, which displayed such new language. This kind of combined language was a clever suggestion that needed further thought."

What is happening (or what happened) in Taiwan is very similar to what is happening in countries with several languages (such as the Philippines). Writers (who are the usually the most aware of postcolonial issues) tend to mix languages for many purposes, among which is the subversion of the colonial language, as well as the faithful representation of the reality of a postcolonial people (half dreaming of being part of the colonizing country and half remembering that they are being oppressed as the colonized).

09 April 2010

Swedish and Tornedals Finnish

Here's the abstract of a paper presented during the Sociolinguistics Symposium held in Stockholm in April 2008:

"Literary Codeswitching: Shaping culture and identity" by Carla Jonsson:

"This paper focuses on the literary use of code-switching in novels and plays where code-switching occurs between different languages, dialects, styles and varieties. In this paper I argue that the authors and playwrights of such novels and plays can be seen as actors/agents in the sense that they can shape the readers' notions of culture and identity. For instance, by writing a Swedish novel where code-switching between Swedish and Tornedals Finnish (a historical minority language in Sweden) is used, the author creates and shapes the readers' view of what ‘the Finnish-Swedish culture’ is like. The author at the same time also shapes ‘the Finnish-Swedish culture’ in the sense that its language is legitimized, its voice is (or rather some of its voices are) heard, and its experiences are acknowledged. My presentation will focus on code-switching in relation to power and identity. These are 'global' functions of code-switching, according to Auer (1998, 1999), and as such relate to macro connections in society.

"In my presentation novels written in Sweden with code-switching between different languages, dialects, styles and varieties will be discussed together with Chicano plays written in the US, in which there is frequent code-switching between Spanish and English. Findings of my doctoral thesis on code-switching in Chicano theater will serve as basis of the discussion (Jonsson 2005).

"The sociolinguistic situation in California and other southwestern states with frequent contact between English and Spanish, has led to the emergence of Chicano discourse and to the creation of a particular Chicano literature. Similarly, recent development in Sweden has brought forth multiethnic varieties that are now beginning to be used in Swedish literature. In fact, multicultural and multilingual literature is a field of literature that is rapidly growing in Sweden. This literature (novels, poems and plays) uses multiethnic varieties and/or code-switching between different languages to express a multicultural and multilingual experience. My study concentrates on the use of code-switching in this type multilingual literature. One reason for choosing to emphasize on language use in literature is that most previous research in this field has focused on speech.

"Links will be drawn between the functions of code-switching in Chicano theater and the functions of code-switching in multilingual literature in Sweden. Issues of power, ideology and resistance play a central role in this discussion since code-switching can serve as a creative response to domination and since language in these forms of literature often fills empowering functions. The different novels and plays that constitute this multilingual literature, together create a literary platform that can be regarded as an alternative market (Bourdieu 1991) where it is possible for ethnic minority groups to make their voices heard. In addition, the possibility of constructing and reconstructing a separate identity through the use of code-switching in literature will be discussed. By employing code-switching in their work is possible for the authors and playwrights to reflect, construct and reconstruct a separate third space identity (Bhabha 1994) that draws upon the different cultural environments."

I still have to check if the proceedings of the symposium have been published.

07 April 2010

Back to basics

It's good to look back at the simple (simplistic, really) explanation for schoolchildren that Michael Ryan gives in his Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction (2nd ed., 2007):

"Important concepts in post-colonial study are diaspora, hybridity, ambiguity, mimicry, mestizaje, and creolization. Most former imperial countries are now disaporic in the sense the people from former colonies have moved to imperial metropoles such as England and become English. Ideas regarding national or even ethnic cultural identity become more difficult to apply in situations where traditional and metropolitan cultural norms and identities meet and mix. ... Colonialists sought to impose their own culture on a quite different culture so that it would mime or imitate that of the imperial center. The desire for a homogeneous identity of ruler and ruled was confounded by the unequal relation of power which meant that such imposition was disturbed implicitly by tendencies toward non-compliance and willed dissonance. What resulted often was mimicry with irony rather than imitation. Some natives sought refuge in indigenous, often oral cultures or in ideals of a national culture based in their own experience and language. The assumption was that language bears worldviews within it, so that to adopt the imperial language was in effect to adopt the point of view of imperialism, with all of the arrogant assumptons that ran counter to one’s own interests as a subject of colonialism. But other writers and intellectuals embraced the opportunity for creative mixing that the colonial and post-colonial situation afforded. From this way of thinking resulted such terms as ‘mestizaje’ and ‘creolization,’ the idea that identities and languages from both sides of the imperial equation can combine to generate new subjective and linguistic possiblities. A mestizo is a mixed-race person, and a creole is a mixed language that combines elements of a language like English or French with local indigenous dialects." (196-97)

Ironically, Ryan reveals exactly the kind of imperialistic arrogance that he valiantly tries so hard to avoid - by calling local indigenous languages "dialects" rather than "languages" (which is what linguists call them), thus implying that English or French have a higher status than the "local" and "indigenous." Sometimes (as in movies such as Avatar and District 9), those oppressors that try to help the oppressed actually do not, in a deeper sense. I remember what the feminist Toril Moi said in answer to a question in a lecture at Oxford in 1988; asked if men should be feminists, she said, "They could, but they shouldn't, because they will occupy the only space that we have" (or words to that effect).

Nevertheless, Ryan's explanation for students more or less clarifies why we have to do what we do: none of the current literary theories can adequately account for the intricate relationship between mother (or "native") language and the colonial language in the writing of literature.

04 April 2010

Chinese, not just English

It is not only English that is accused of killing national languages (called hegemony in critical language), but the language that is spoken and read by even more people - Chinese. Here is the lament of Chong-goan Lim, a writer in Taiwan:

"今仔日台灣文壇為何猶未寫出不朽的精采的作品, 除了一寡因素之外, 就是作家忽視母語, 輕視母語,… 一個無自信的人, 怎有才調寫出不朽的精采的作品, 結果也只好乖乖做文化的屬民, 文學的奴隸。所以今仔日的作家, 著愛重新整合創新台語, 按呢, 才有才調寫出現時現地醞釀佇心靈中的世界。

"Why does immortal work still not occur in the literature of Taiwan? There are some factors: one is that our writers ignored and looked down our own mother tongue because they were not confident of their vernacular. How could a writer without any confidence create an immortal work? Consequently, they had to subordinate themselves to Chinese culture and become the slaves of Chinese literature. So, today, we Taiwanese writers have to devote ourselves to literary works in Taigi. Then, we will be able to describe our world in our mind.

"台灣文學就是愛用台語來寫…台灣文學就是台灣人用台灣人的母語寫的文學…台語文學就是台灣文學。(Lim 1990)

"Taiwan Literature must be written in Taigi…Taiwan Literature is the literature written in the mother tongue of Taiwanese people…Taiwan Literature is Taigi literature."

Historically, linguistic superiority or prestige follows economic and/or political superiority. Only creative writers (by their nature as creative writers) can rise above the common beliefs of their age and see that languages need not be hostage to economics nor politics. We have to be careful, as literary critics, not to be carried away by the stupidity (yes, for that is what it is) of non-literary "intellectuals" who never seem to realize that economics and politics come and go, but art stays. Who remembers the GNP of the Greece of Sophocles or even the England of Shakespeare? Who remembers (without looking it up) the name of the American President during the time Nathaniel Hawthorne was writing The Scarlet Letter?

02 April 2010

Ravi Kumar on translation

Article alert:

Ravi Kumar, part of our online community, has just published an article on translation in India:

The life of a translator in India.

Here's an excerpt:

"Bilinguals have always been respected in India as people with superior qualifications, and they have played a pivotal role in social and cultural change. Slowly, bilingualism has become so widespread that it is complementary in nature. For example, an individual may use a particular language at home, another in the neighbourhood and the bazaar, and still another in certain formal domains such as education, administration, and the like. In addition, the languages of national and international communication, Hindi and English, are also part of the linguistic repertoire of a sizeable number of Indians. In India, linguistic diversity is not an accident, rather it is inherited in the process of acquiring the composite culture of India."