Thursday, June 22, 2006

On Language and Identity

This post is in response to Lotus's post, which raises some interesting questions regarding the importance of language. Her post also talks about an interesting book, The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic, which is now on my list of books to read.

Language, I believe, is part of a person's expression of a place; it helps to show the veracity of one's claim that one belongs to a place. Language is part of one's identity. It is difficult to feel connected to a place whose language one does not speak. Now what to do with immigrants who come with their own set of language, of identity. To feel connected to the new place, they'll need to learn its language, but by so doing they grow farther and farther away from their native identity. What is the effect of this? What does it feel like to no longer be what you have always been? Ugresic's books sounds like it will provide an insightful answer to these questions.

My sister recently came back from Nigeria, and I noticed how her mannerisms, her words, and thinking were so "Nigerian." I was so jealous. I felt like she was more authentically Nigerian, and I longed for home so severely. Hearing my sister sound more Nigerian, I can finally understand my mom's fear that I might be slowly forgetting my native tongue. I fear that I am becoming less and less Nigerian. It is not a good feeling—it is like I am losing myself, and my past seems more hazy because it is so different from my now. Is it a wonder then that the Chinese, for example, have their own “towns” in the US? Is this—creating “towns”— the only way to maintain one’s native identity while acquiring a different one? For a world that is so culturally diverse, why does it seem that the road to success seems antagonistic to diversity?

As I noted on Lotus' blog, her post reminds me of Jamaica Kincaid's words in her book "A small place," which goes, "For the language of the criminal can only contain the goodness of the criminal's deeds... [it] can explain and express the deed only from the criminal's point of view." It seems, then, that a language is biased towards the native, so it makes sense that conquerors would want their colonies to speak their language, as a way of eliciting, in the colonies, behavior and worldview that sees the "sense" in a conqueror's actions.

Language can be like an identification card that confers certain attributes and mentality to its speaker. Just watch a bi-lingual or multi-lingual person speak to different people; s/he acts in ways that are consistent and unique to the particular language he or she is speaking at any given moment. To rob a person of his or her language is to deny him or her full expression of the national identity that comes with that language. A Nigerian who does not speak any Nigerian language is a foreigner with Nigerian parents--at least this would be the emotional world of such a person.

It seems inevitable to be sucked into the black hole of the dominant culture, but the inevitability is only because we have allowed it. Our diversity ensures differential response to a given situation, and contrary to today's view, this is a good thing.

It is amazing how a book can get you to think and to develop some convictions. I do want my children to maintain their Nigerian roots. For that to happen, however, I have to be grounded in it as well, and this is so challenging especially when I am in a place where very few people speak my language. But to let go of said language is to let go of myself. Like my sister, I just have to keep going home to Nigeria, to remind myself of where I am from and who I am, even as I take on new identities.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

The realm of diaries: function and invasion

I remember the day, years ago, when I discovered a certain someone in my life, let us called the person Z, reading my diary. Z was lying on the bed reading my diary, fully absorbed in the details s/he was reading. So absorbed was s/he that even looking up to address my presence seemed like too much effort. I instantly recognized the decorated cover of my diary and contorted my face in varying ways--a response to the different questions that were now passing through my mind. Z seeing the knowledge in my eyes, instantly became fearful. You could tell s/he wished there was a way s/he could will the diary into disappearing.

I lunged towards Z.
“Is that my diary you’re reading?” I asked, as I snatched it away from him/her. I, of course, already knew the answer to my question, but I still needed to ask it, in order to create the guns of accountability that should now be certain to hit him/her. Z could not say a thing and looked at me with that pleading look, one arising from the sudden realization of the wrongness of his/her actions. I looked at my diary, which I had marked with all sorts of warnings. “Do not read!” “Privacy Alert!” Yet, Z had decided to enter.

“How dare you!!!” I screamed.

Such invasion of privacy wounded me deeply. It was not just an invasion of my space, my world. It was an invasion of the very essence and reason for the diary’s being. The diary is a looking mirror that allows one to see (years later) how one was and maybe still is. The idea of someone else being privy to this subtle knowledge of who/how I am, which I have not yet discovered or realized, by virtue of still being so close in time to the me in the diary, hurt me. I felt naked and unable to clothe myself, at least not before his/her eyes, even though there was nothing particularly negative and unexpected in the diary given Z’s relationship to me. But the idea of someone seeing my life or me as I saw it, giving the effect that my mind was no longer just my own, felt like a fork through my heart.

A diary means different things to different people. For some, it is just a personal account of their every day thoughts, actions, and so on. For others, it is a place to explore one’s self, to find release, to say what one feels powerless to do or say, and other such psychologically and maybe intellectually motivated reasons.

I have noticed that I cannot get myself to read another’s dairy, unless I have the author’s permission—and this includes diaries of historical figures. As it concerns historical figures, I say to myself, “But you gain unique and invaluable insight into that person’s life, the events and views of his/her day, and so on.” But my mind is still adamant in its refusal to doing any such reading.

In some cases, the family of the deceased person gives a publisher permission to print the deceased member’s diary. And I try to convey this to my mind. Still, it is not persuaded. It says to me, “When the person was alive, the family probably was not allowed to view the diary. So what gives them the right to distribute this work to others upon the person’s death?”

When the publication of a diary is mainly to satisfy other people’s curiosity, is it justified, if the author of the diary has not given his/her permission? Sometimes this question and this whole issue about whether or not to read published diaries of the deceased seems trivial, but I still cannot get myself to read important works like “Anne Frank.” I bought the book. However, each time I prepare myself to read it, I my attacked by the thought that I am invading another’s world and soul.

Maybe I am too sentimental. Maybe I am making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe this is just another example of my oddness. Whatever it is, it has become my personal conviction not to read diaries, published or otherwise, unless the author has given his or her permission. Of course, in the case of a life and death situation where a diary is certain to provide valuable information, a justification for reading it may be made, just like how one's privacy can sometimes be compromised when it is necessary for legal/safety issues.

To explore this issue further, let us consider the case of Kurt Cobain’s published diary.
I know someone who bought the dairy of the late artist, Kurt Cobain, who is believed to have taken his own life. She told me that in the beginning of the diary, Cobain warns people against reading his diary, but later, he seemed to hope that people would read it. She, a fan, justified her reading it by hanging on to his second wish. But to get to the second wish, she had to ignore the first. Some fans have opted not to buy the diary, claiming that it was an invasion of his privacy. Is such publication justified?

This case makes me wonder whether the very act of keeping a diary can indicate a subconscious or conscious desire to have someone else read the work, but long after s/he is gone, so s/he is not there to respond to people’s reaction. This reminds me of D.W. Winnicott’s words that “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” Maybe for some people, a diary is a means of being found or known while being hidden or alone to one's self/thoughts.

I believe for many, a diary is a chance to live in a world filled with only one’s eyes, whether real or imagined. It can be a person’s Atlantis—existing but not existing. Its boundaries, I believe, are to be respected, regardless of whether the author is alive or not.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

The Looming Fog: Weakening the fear monster

My book, The Looming Fog, is going to be born on June 15.
When I first conceived The Looming Fog, I did not know of the journey it would take me on. It was a journey into the lives of others and into myself. Like all books, it introduces you to many new lives. The book certainly talks about some unpopular topics; some people have even proceeded to call it “controversial.” And I suppose it is controversial, as is anything that calls for a critical look at the status quo. But I do not believe the book is exigent in its call for a change; it simply asks one to see the effect of the status quo.

Through writing this book, I have learned a lot about myself, about my thoughts, my ideas, and my opinions, and I have developed some new convictions. Above all, I have learned to be true to myself and to never forget that one fact that binds us all together: no matter who we are, what we are, where we are, or how we are, we are all humans and we deserve to be treated as such. Anything less than this fact is inhumane and is the worst and lowest kind of primitive.

Very so often, we categorize people, and we do need these categories for organizing our everyday living. However, we have become so obsessed with categorizing, so addicted to it, that anything without a category immediately provokes the fear monster within us. There is nothing wrong with categories; they make us feel comfortable; they help us define our selves. But…Yes, there is a but. Sometimes we have used these categories against each other. No, many times we have used these categories as a permanently fogged eyeglass, blinding us eternally to the fact that the person next to us, different in whatever way they are, are most importantly like us in that they are human. Our humanity never leaves us because we are different, even if we are different in a bad way. Sadly, we have used our categories to determine who can be treated humanely and who cannot. Some categories have become the corrupt judge that decides whose person’s life is worthy, worthy to be meaningful. It is time to take off this damaged eyeglass. It is time to see ourselves in each other.

The Looming Fog is about categories, the potentially dividing monster that we welcome, uncritically, into our midst. The book begs that we reconcile our need for categories with our use for them; that is, we should not abuse them. Categories can be the pillars of our society, but like an earthquake, they can also shatter us into bits, making us more and more alienated from one another. Consequently, the next time we look at a mirror, all we would see is someone on the other side of us, instead of simply “us.”

Writing this book has not been the easiest of things. I can even say that it is one of the most challenging things I have done to date (trying to live a Christian life definitely earns first place). I have cried, I have laughed, and I have taken my mind to places I did not even know I could go. You will notice my use of birth metaphors like “conceive” and "born”. This is because this book is like a child to me. It went through a gestational phase, growing to different stages, preparing itself for the life (outside of me, outside of my influences) that it is about to take on.

Books, unlike other children, mature the day they are born. They leave home, ready to face the world, to get their share of scars and laughs. Then maybe, just maybe one day they will develop wings and fly back home to say:

“I once was lost and confused. I once was misunderstood. People lost their eyes for me, and then I too could not see. But I screamed and then I cried, and someone recognized my voice. Someone echoed it. Then someone else screamed of joy and hope, and I echoed that. Now I have found my voice, and I am heard. My eyes can now see, and I am seen. I come home at peace with my scars and my laughs. I am home, at last. Let me tell you what I have seen and heard.”

Oh, what a happy day!

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