Comps Notes: Speaking Citizenship

Selection from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Click through for an interactive guide.

One of the recurring themes I’ve noticed in the texts on my reading list is an emphasis on speech as a way to think about belonging or alienation. In my list, I’m engaging with portrayals of cultural citizenship, and I didn’t purposely anticipate the way that speech would represent that, but it’s something I was pleasantly surprised by.

What really got me thinking about this theme was Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee. The novel is compelling and beautiful in many ways, but I kept coming back to the title as it did not clearly fit with the plot of the book. Yet, there’s a recurring image of voice and image not matching up, like the speech is dubbed in: “I couldn’t help but think there was a mysterious dubbing going on, the very idea I wouldn’t give a quarter to when I would speak to strangers, the checkout girl, the mechanic, the professor, their faces dully awaiting my real speech, my truer talk and voice. When I was young I’d look in the mirror and address it, as if daring the boy in there; I would say something dead and normal, like, ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance,’ and I could barely convince myself that it was I who was talking” (167). A huge undercurrent of the story is Henry Park’s sense of isolation or alienation, never feeling properly attached or like he really fits in. The theme comes through in speech and silence–his inability to say the right thing, his father’s stoicism. There’s also the fact that his wife is a speech therapist and in the end of the novel he works as her assistant, trying to make children feel loved and safe, even as their speech is corrected. Henry’s sense of alienation from his speech, even though he is a native English speaker, represents how he feels in-between Korean culture and American culture, much like he and his wife feared their biracial son would.

In Feminism on the Border, Sonia Saldívar-Hull writes about her experience in school in Central Texas and how she and other students of Mexican descent were treated like they were less intelligent than their white peers. Part of this experience centered on the Spanish accent in their English, which was viewed as a problem, despite the fact that they were fluent in English: “Lining up at the front of the third-grade class with the handful of children my teacher delicately labeled ‘Spanish,’ I worked on ‘diction.’ The fact that we all came from similar backgrounds, with working-class parents, many of whom were fifth-generation borderers and were therefore fluent in English, was ignored by this educator, who felt she was helping us by eradicating all traces of a Spanish accent” (6). In this way Saldívar-Hull illustrates how speech was used as a tool to assimilate the students into a more Anglo-centric culture, steamrolling over the complicated relationship between Mexican and American cultures in the borderlands.

Most abstractly, in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, speech and dictation are described as tools of imperialism. She uses what looks like excerpts from French textbooks and catechisms as well as truncated writing to illustrate the physical act of speech and how it is tied to emotions. For example, opposite a diagram of the mouth and throat, she writes:

One by one. / The sounds. The sounds that move at a time  / stops. Starts again. Exceptions / stops and starts again / all but exceptions / Stop. Start. Starts. / Contractions. Noise. Semblance of noise. / Broken speech. One to one. At a time. / Cracked tongue. Broken tongue. Pidgeon. Semblance of speech. / Swallows. Inhales. Stutter. Starts. Stops before starts… (75)

She depicts how proper speech requires training the tongue, teeth, nose, and breath to work together to make particular sounds and words. She makes physical the acquisition of language, which other authors portray as primarily an intellectual activity. In this way she portrays how the assimilation of language and accent is a sort of physically violent act as well.

All of these examples also work along side the portrayal of regionalism and dialect in works such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Bonfire of the Vanities, Absalom, Absalom!, and other narratives that cross borders. Obviously, language is an important part of participating in the public sphere, but what these authors show is how its role goes beyond being able to communicate “legibly” to the ways that speech and language can be alienating and how diction can be used as an instrument of hegemonic power.

As a sidebar, literature plays a sort of similar role in several works as well. In both America is in the Heart and Tripmaster Monkey, the protagonists strive to create a literature that is representative of their people. On one hand, Carlos envisions writing as a way to pay tribute to the people who struggled back home and to the violence and oppression Filipinos experienced in America. His ideals about literature are heavily influenced by his self-education in Western literature and in his beliefs in education as a means of entering democracy. In Tripmaster Monkey, Wittman Ah Sing –named for Walt Whitman* and for Norman Assing, a Chinese man who wrote against the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1855, the same year Leaves of Grass was published–writes a play as a way to portray an inclusive society. His writing is both a tool for democracy and for survival as he creates a part for everyone. Wittman and Tripmaster are also heavily influenced by Western literature, particularly James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Beats, but also by Chinese literature, as the monkey king of Journey to the West is a central motif of Wittman’s journey. Notably, the monkey king was traveling with a monk to obtain sacred texts. In The Namesake, literature plays a less central role, but I think Gogol’s name and it’s connection to the Russian author acts as a way of thinking about forming a hybrid identity in America.

*Native Speaker has an epigraph from Whitman: “I turn but do not extricate myself, / Confused, a past-reading, another, / but with darkness yet.”

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