Speaking freely

by Shumona Sinha

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

I spent my innocent years among the Bengalis and emancipated myself through the French language. Looking back, I see a country that loves me but does not understand me, and ahead of me I see another country, one that tries tirelessly to understand me: My starting point and my mistakes, my hidden motives and traitorous dreams, my raison d’être, all lived out here, among them.

After all I will never have the right face to be mistaken for a European, even though I speak several European languages and I wrote my book in a European language.

The tower of language stretches skywards and the foreigners buzz and flutter around it, picking a bit out here and a bit there, leaving litter behind but never able to nest. The right to language is just as immovable as the right to land, just more abstract and more blurred; you can’t see it on a map or in the lay of the land.

I am regularly invited to take part in discussions about identity. Of course it’s legitimate to invite me because I ask these kinds of questions in my book. But the issue is that by always asking me about this in France and in other European countries, everything is reduced to my biography and my ethnic roots.

Even the fact that I am writing this article is evidence of that. Part of this is because European demography has been undergoing radical changes over the past few years and there has been an increase in Islamist fanaticism. This has cast doubt upon every non-Christian woman and man in Europe.

This confrontation between differing civilisations has disturbed local customs and habits, and unfortunately literary circles have not been left unaffected. It also reflects a fear of your neighbours, of foreigners, of the Other.

So what are your roots? And what damage does it do if you rip them out, cut them off and then plant them again in a different place? These stubborn societal questions undermine trust and destroy hope.

In some Parisian neighbourhoods there is a huge resistance to foreigners from southern lands. And because you can’t swap your background, you swap your neighbourhood instead, moving once, twice, even three times. Like a dog that turns around and around in its own basket, trying to get comfortable, you roam in Paris, from north to south, from east to west.

Eventually there’s always an incident you could describe as “racist”. Then there are more, and more, and you get used to it - you call it everyday racism. At some stage a foreigner begins to doubt their new French ID card, in blue and white, as though it is nothing more than another burden, and must prove its legitimacy. And finally, the foreigner understands that he or she cannot move away from themselves, their image or from their shadow. They’ll never be able to move away from the problem zone because they carry it with them, in their faces, in their bodies, like a mouldy map of a faraway place. They themselves are the problem zone.

Curiosity about skin colour is insatiable. You’re always trying to find a suitable word to describe it. The skin and the word stigmatise each other. The image that society reflects is seen as problematic in literary circles but mostly it’s just to show off and to start a discussion, always renegotiated with invited “foreign” writers. It’s like a side show, or a zoo for endangered species.

I call this ethnic superiority, the paternalistic attitude of the white skinned folk who are trying to find excuses for their hegemony. There may be noble intentions but at the same time, it’s pejorative and counterproductive.

The questions that should be asked are about my linguistic identity and after that, how I use this as an artist. Language is not just there to send a message, it is the message. Every real writer alters their own language, whether it is their mother tongue or not, they handle it roughly, divert it and let it implode, in order to evolve their own language, a language inside a language. Every serious writer crosses boundaries in order to get inside their own texts.

Of course, this linguistic journey proceeds quickly when one is born “elsewhere” and the implosion happens rapidly. I refer here to an article I wrote this year for the French daily Libération, during the week of Francophonie Day. One word is enough to describe my style: Langue-agement. That is, language is engagement.  If writing in Bengali, a "local" language in India, dominated by the national and nationalist linguistic culture of Hindi, was my first step of resistance, my second step was opting to write in French in the light of the imperialist position of English language.

Perhaps that was my personal de-colonization. For a Bengali author, who had access to world literature, and in particular Russian literature, from childhood, it was especially revolutionary to want to write in French, a conceptual language, demanding and cumbersome. Its grammar demands an analytical and rational approach, a long way from the transparent vividness of Bengali.

The tastes of your life morph with the language in which you live. It is not just a means of expression, it is expression. Writing in a foreign language does not just change and alter the words, it also changes the way you think. I am not multi-ethnic by birth but by culture, a writer of hybrid texts.

When you write in an adopted language, you live in linguistically disruptive circumstances, you try to discern the root of every word’s true meaning. You write not as an academic researcher but as an adventurer, a trapper who has lost his way in the jungle and tries to find forge a new path, digging and questioning along the way.

After the first schizophrenic years, the to-and-fro of life and language where my dreams always sought home, the decision to take up French became more conscious, part of a personal-political gesture. Writing in French frees me from the weight of a paternalistic Indian society, which is becoming more and more nationalistic in the clutches of Hindu fundamentalism, where censorship doesn’t just come from the state but also from within yourself.

The French language has freed me, not just as a writer, but also as a woman. Writing has become my way of life, my way of being and my reason for being. I do not write in the continuity of reality, but in an altered version of it. For me, literature is a wonderful, and a necessary, perversion of reality.

Rimbaud said that “real life is absent”. And out of this we can concoct a more comfortable and accommodating version: “Real life is elsewhere”.

This “elsewhere” exists thanks to foreigners who live in another language. Those of us who take our literary responsibilities seriously, have the privilege and the right to use a multitude of linguistic identities, a multitude that is not frozen in place but which is in perpetual motion. 

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