Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

On Labors of Love and Language Learning: Xiaolu Guo Rewriting the Monolingual Family Romance

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

On Labors of Love and Language Learning: Xiaolu Guo Rewriting the Monolingual Family Romance

Article excerpt

In Translingual Imagination, Steven Kellman cites the popular monolingual myth that "there seems to be something not only painful but unnatural, almost matricidal, about an author who abandons Muttersprache" (3), only to list many authors who have succeeded and have renewed the languages to which they chose to contribute. Note the vocabulary of "pain," "abandonment," "unnaturalness," even monstrosity implied by the "matricide" of writing in another language. According to Yasemin Yildiz in Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition, it is the persistence of such affectively charged vocabulary that undergirds the power of what she names the "monolingual paradigm": "a key structuring principle that organizes the entire range of modern social life, from the construction of individuals and their proper subjectivities to the formation of disciplines and institutions, as well as imagined collectives such as cultures and nations" (2). As a belief in the irreplaceable biological origin of a person's language, it was introduced alongside the nationalist foundations of modernity in the eighteenth century and made the "mother tongue" not a metaphor, but a fetish and a "condensed narrative" that sees "affect, gender and kinship, tied to a story of origin and identity" (12-13). In order to allow for a multilingual paradigm to re-emerge, alongside the possibility of affective relationships with other languages or a productive estrangement from them, Yildiz argues that we need to unsettle the "linguistic family romance" and deconstruct "the manufactured proximity between 'mother' and 'language'" (12).

Translingual writers creating in more than one literary language have long been writing against the monolingual paradigm, showing the need for other metaphors to describe the connection between writers and their languages. Their putative matricidal attempts originated often in the need to evade the matrix of national cultures' oppressive monolingualism or gender norms. In a postcolonial context, this gave rise to the vocabulary of appropriation or abrogation (Ashcroft, 1989), cannibalism (Fernandez Retamar, 1971) or theft (Ramazani, 2001). John Skinner's The Stepmother Tongue: an Introduction to New Anglophone Fiction (1998) suggested "stepmother tongue" in an effort to find a term to classify Anglophone fiction composed in a language imposed by the unequal power structures of colonialism. The compulsory language of the colonizer, contrasted with the local 'mother tongue,' inhabits here the archetype of a stepmother. Critics have since turned to this somewhat playful metaphor to refer to writing in a non-native language in contexts other than postcolonial, which because of the increased mobility of people in the age of globalization has become also common in immigrant and diasporic literatures. Josip Novakovich employs "stepmother tongue" in his introduction to a collection of stories by non-native English speakers writing in the United States.

"Writing the Stepmother Tongue" returned as an umbrella term for translingual creativity in the recent symposium on Translingual Writing organized by Kellman, Natasha Lvovich, and Ilan Stavans at Amherst University in October 2015. During the proceedings, translingual writers assembled in the opening panel of the symposium interrogated the governing metaphor as they proposed that the dynamics of language acquisition as often include lovers as ancestors. Ilan Stavans suggested that his wife was the giver and listener of the language: "many of us are married to non-our-first-language speakers" and "the true translators, the true transfer ticket holders are those partners." Sergio Weissman followed with a comment about the "intimate informant," and Gustavo Perez-Firmat admitted that the only two people he ever collaborated with and allowed to edit his work were his wife and a best friend. What these statements point to is that the second language chosen for translingual writing--especially outside the postcolonial context--allows for more voluntary affections: it is not so much a "stepmother's tongue" as a lover's tongue. …

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