"This Is for You": Emotions, Language and Postcolonialism

By Filipczak, Dorota | Text Matters, November 2013 | Go to article overview

"This Is for You": Emotions, Language and Postcolonialism


Filipczak, Dorota, Text Matters


Rukmini Bhaya Nair Speaks with Dorota Filipczak

Dorota Filipczak: Professor Nair, you have arrived in Poland as a linguist, but you are also a postcolonial critic and a poet, which is always the most intimate identity. I would like to ask you about the way these different roles inform each other. As a linguist you are a self-conscious user of languages. How does it affect your poetry and your criticism?

Rukmini Bhaya Nair: I think you have problematized the question of the "self " of the writer in such an unavoidable way that I must now confront it head-on-and the dangers of self-inflicted injury in such a situation are apparent! I must begin by confessing that I find the notion of a single, primary identity or role quite difficult to accept. You have spoken about my being here at a conference on linguistic pragmatics, and this is a disciplinary area that studies the multiform, multivalent uses of language. Taking my cue from this, I want to suggest that it is the nature of language use, which always has to adapt itself to current circumstances, to change subtly from moment to moment. Use is an itinerant, a beggar, knocking at the door of language. It does not have a "room of one's own," so to speak. This affects our conceptions of the self as well. I think that the hierarchy of the self, predicated on the uses of language, is, in essence, rickety. Even if one intentionally constructs oneself, let's say, first as an academic, then a mother, and then a poet, language simply does not allow one to freeze these identities. So poetry too, like any other use of language, becomes a persistent questioning of identity. And I think this is most marked in the case of women! I do not know about Poland, but being a woman in India often means you have to adjust minute-to-minute to somebody else's notion of who you are. This constant calibration of who you are sensitizes you to what you are not. And writing, whether as a postcolonial critic or linguist or poet, is all about investigating this calibrated ambiguity. Exploring what you are not is exploring what you are. Ambiguity flowers at the heart of language.

DF: Let me ask you a more personal question. Were you born into an Anglo-Indian legacy? What made you choose English as a medium of your poetry? I would like to know what your original language is and how many languages you actually speak, and to what extent they influence the syntax and vocabulary of your poems.

RBN: I often say we do not choose our languages any more than we choose our parents. To answer your question more specifically, my mother came from Goa, and was born into a Catholic family, though she was not a believing Catholic from quite early on, while my father came from Bengal and was Hindu but not a believing one either. So, you could say faith in questioning, and questions of faith, were interlocked in my ancestry! As I've mentioned, my parents had different religions and spoke different languages. My mother's background was Goan and Portuguese, and my father's background was Bengali. It was an unusual marriage. When my parents got married in the 1950s, my mother was excommunicated by the Cardinal in Bombay for marrying a Hindu! Religious conflict and language difference therefore almost seemed fated to later enter my writing: for example, when I wrote a long poem like The Ayodhya Cantos which used old myths and legends to tell the political story of the barbaric destruction of a sixteenth-century mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992.

The fact of the matter is you put any language that is available to use when you need to, just as you eat the food that is put on the table when you are a child without asking whether there is better food available elsewhere. In my case, the common language that my parents happened to have, through the historical contingencies of colonialism and postcolonialism, was English. English was the food served up on my parents' rather unusual table. I ate it, I used it-and that was that. …

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