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Review: Tongues

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

4/5 stars

I learned about this collection of personal essays because one of the contributors, Amanda Leduc, wrote a book that I read and loved last year: Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. I was interested to learn more from her about the language of ableism. Bonus - I got to explore the relationship between language and identity with 25 other Canadian writers as well!

The majority of these essays are about immigrant families - either the author (&/or their parents) immigrated to Canada, and are reckoning with the loss of their "mother tongue." Some feel shame in this, some work to re-claim the language, some choose to accept that it's a language of their past, not their present or future. Many talk about the connection to their communities, and how language, or the lack thereof, can strengthen or break those bonds. Each essay explores "the importance of language in our identity, and the ways in which it shapes us."

I'll admit that after a while the stories started to feel a bit repetitive, but all of them had some nugget of beautiful wisdom, and there were a few essays that really stood out for me...

Adam Pottle's Newborn grapples with the author's experiences as a Deaf playwright, having grown up in a hearing world (including at home and in school), and the overwhelming joy of seeing his play performed by other Deaf artists.

In Amanda Leduc's essay It's Just a Figure of Speech, language is scrutinized for the ways it can create barriers for people with certain bodies:

Nothing is ever just something that people say - the words we use all have power, and ableist language is powerful precisely because it hides its harm beneath a veneer of innocuous mundanity, behind the smokescreen of it's just a figure of speech... Common phrases in the English language privilege the able-bodied life without even thinking about it: you stand up for what's right, you take steps towards progress, you walk a mile in someone else's shoes. What does language like this say to the person who can't stand up, who can't walk, who can't take steps? It says, however unconsciously, they they - and their bodies - don't belong in the conversation.

Kai Cheng Thom explores the language of trauma in Language is the Fluid of our Collective Bodies - how the pain itself can be passed down from generation to generation, and how our stories need to be shared to keep relationships alive:

The story of what happened writes itself into our DNA, even if we cannot read it. I believe that language is... like plasma, like blood, like spinal fluid, it carries nutrients and information from one unit to the next. Without the lubricating, life-giving qualities of language shared over time, the tissues of our relationships becomes tough and unresponsive. Our wounds fail to heal, we scarify and ossify. Something gets lost in the space between.

Thom also talks about their difficulty in speaking their "mother tongue" with native speakers - "they begin to see the textures of my limitations, and this frustrates me because they do not know how intelligent I am in English." I particularly related to this passage because I now have a job that requires me to communicate in a language I am not fluent in - American Sign Language. I can get by. I can understand the majority of what is said to me, and I can say what I need to say, most of the time. But I always feel like I'm holding back, like I'm not quite me. I'm more reserved, less forceful. But I'm working on it! After all, to learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. (Chinese proverb)


UP NEXT: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (re-read)

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