Sara Nelson

Mother tongue: The intimacies of humanity

2013-11-29 | Sara Nelson padlock


Poet Sara Nelson (earlier Westin) writes about the mother tongue and the intimate strangeness of language. A troubling text where white nationalism is placed in the context of the death of the mother and the rising of children in exile.

The red leaves of autumn hang fleshy like hearts that have had their fill, as others lay deflated and fallen across the green wet grass. I exhale the first taste of autumn as a taste upon my tongue.

It was only months ago that I stood beside her hospital bed gliding my fingertips along the tube pumping someone else’s blood into her body from a bag that hung like one of those fleshy leaves of the tree I just passed. As I watched the blood push through the tube into her arm, I thought of all the beautiful and painful living we do through our blood. My blood pouring through hers in my birth and now her blood beginning the slow spill out from her body as she dies. Our blood that is some intimacy of our humanity.

The plastic tubing reminded me of my childhood, the orange and neon plastic bracelets I wore dangling on my wrists as a child. She bought them for me at Pick ‘n Save in another land where so much of our memories still gather. She only speaks Swedish to me now, a language as unfamiliar between us as the plastic tube moving blood to her body or the cancer spreading through her. She speaks in whispers and hesitations. Like the clock’s ticking she stares disturbingly at or in the shift of her body before the pain engulfs her. I don’t understand her words; I only understand the gaps in-between them as the gaps that are part of every mother’s tongue. She becomes angry when I ask her to speak up and louder. This is not our language. It is her mother tongue but not mine. I a wound in her slip of tongue, she is already someplace else and someone else. I clutch the tube with one hand as if I am holding some piece of her that is slipping away from me, the last intimacy of her humanity.

Scientists say the tongue is a complex organ. It aids in digestion, the cleaning of teeth, in the experience of taste as well as in the sensing of the temperature of food. The tongue is also necessary in the articulation of speech. It is so necessary to speech that it is often used as a metonym for language. Tongue in cheek, tip-of-the-tongue, tongue tied, tongue twister, talking in tongues, silver tongue, cat got your tongue, bite your tongue, forked tongue and mother tongue. Mother tongue.

C and I are walking to his school. His blue jacket hood is up and his chattering of words dance in the wind becoming only catching familiar whispers to my ears. I ask him to turn his face towards mine and to say his words again. He asks me why we gave money to the man on the ground. Why the man doesn’t have his own money. My Swedish cannot stretch beyond this. So I tell him a part of a story by Amos Tutuola. In this story a beautiful woman who has refused all suitors falls in love with a beautiful man at the market. She follows him from the market. As he goes into the forest, he starts to return parts of himself to various creatures, a hand here, his skin there, a eye, a liver, his backbone, until he is stripped away to all but a skull. I tell him we are like that creature but we have not borrowed all the parts that make our life the way it is. We have stolen them and we continue to do so each day. I say we have so that others do not have.

We always come into the middle of the story, into the middle of language, into the middle of history. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discusses in her lecture, Nationalism and the Imaginiation, mother tongues. Spivak is in an airport in Paris with her mother, she overhears a woman speak with a New York accent, and she cringes. Her mother reprimands her by saying, “Dear, it is a mother tongue.” Spivak goes on to say that there is equivalence in the language learned as infants in all language.

A mother tongue is equivalent to all mother tongues. She says the first language, the mother tongue is so important because it is how the human child learns to negotiate between the public and private outside and beyond the division of the private-public as inherited by Western history. We come into the middle of language, in our births through mothers, a language that already has a history, and a language that will even continue after our deaths. But in the first language, every infant makes this language her own, wrapping words into the intimacies of her own humanity, like the tongue knows the interiors of the mouth. These intimacies exist before nationalism, and will continue after, yet it is these intimacies which nationalism aims to appropriate.

His feet dangle beside me, lopping as if falling, over the bench. Oblivious to stillness, they kick back and forth, swinging. He points up at the moon, a faded white bit of tissue hung high in the blue of the morning sky. A jet plane flies higher above the moon, leaving a jet stream like the collection of memory. C asks, “Är jag svensk?” I ask him what he means. I ask to understand. I ask to give myself time to settle into the enormity of the question. The answer is simple. Yes, you are a Swedish citizen. You are Swedish like Superman is an alien; you are the acceptable face of an invading reality. It is his question that is complicated and that I want to understand and to see if he understands. Is he talking about whiteness? Is he talking about citizenship? Does he know the difference? As we live in a country where the struggle to preserve White supremacy is expressed through the alarming rise of nationalist and populist right-wing movements, it is important to teach our children these differences.

It is not until these last months after my mother’s death that I have begun to think about my mother speaking English, her second language, to me as a child growing up in California, in relation to my speaking Swedish, my second language, to my children in Sweden. There are many reasons I can think I do this or that I can give to explain as despite what researches have said, choices are sometimes based on what it feels like to be in another country, to be a mother in a another country and to be alone. There is never only one way to live. But what is interesting is that both my mother and I share this. We both have given our children a mother tongue that is not our own. We have given our children something often called limited or incomplete of ourselves and it has structured the intimacies of our children’s first languages.

I do not know what it meant for her, as my mother spoke very proper English, and I never could hear her accent. I only know what it means for me in the bending and stretching of myself into the explaining of my thoughts to my children beyond the limits of my Swedish words. It means I have to find stories to explain what I think. Stories that are equivocal to what I would explain in my own mother tongue. I think of my mother to me and I to my children in the words of Marguerite Duras, “You alone became the outer surface of my life, the side I never see, and you will be that, the unknown part of me, until I die.”


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