Crossing the Gulf of Language

Ti m’ban ba e soro, ma fi oyinbo da mi lowun,” her mother chides. “When I’m speaking to you, don’t respond to me in English.” She lets her mind drift with annoyance for a quick second. Now, she must think harder before she can speak. Now, she must limit the things she can say to only the things she can say in this language, which are few to begin with. Now, their conversation must contend with a language barrier in addition to the gulf created by unspoken words and bitter disagreements.

Be ni ma.” She responds with the right words in the wrong way, “Yes, ma.” The words feel clunky on her colonized tongue, a tongue that was never very familiar with the language to begin with. This tongue bends to the rhythm of Spanish and Italian much better than it did her own language. This tongue creates and deconstructs English masterfully but stumbles and stutters at the mere thought of Yoruba.

She slides a hand over her face as the rest of the world walks past. The familiar hum of English around her both soothes, and annoys.

Her mother says something else in Yoruba. She understands perfectly, and luckily this comment requires no more than another “be ni ma.” She wonders if her mother can hear her reluctance to exercise the part of her mouth that would formulate Yoruba perfectly. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t want to speak her own language, but rather that the language doesn’t feel very much like hers. She imagines her Black friends, born and bred in the United States, offering “aww”s and sighing sadly–should she tell them that her own language is foreign to her.

What is she to do? When she lived in Nigeria, she was barely allowed to speak Yoruba. In that Nigerian way of not appreciating what you have, Yoruba was banned in school. Vernacular, it was called. The aim was to speak the Queen’s English better than Elizabeth did. If her English was eloquent, she’d thought, it wouldn’t matter that she spoke Yoruba like “an Igbo person,” as her aunts liked to joke. She did as she was supposed to. Only the ‘street kids’ really spoke Yoruba anyway. When she moved to the US, she was more preoccupied with switching from the Queen’s English to American English. She refused to continue enduring jeers from classmates when she wrote “mum” instead of “mom.” Here, nobody really cared that she didn’t speak much Yoruba.

She hears the worry in her mother’s sigh. She’d heard this very sigh years before, when her mother said, “Don’t make me regret bringing you to this country.” She hadn’t exactly known what this meant, but she’d had an idea. She’d heard the way her family spoke about “the children of this country,” especially the akatas in this country, using this pointedly negative term for Black people. Those akatas her uncle often warned her against marrying, those akatas her family said had no language and no culture, the ones her mother often called lazy and unambitious. They too didn’t speak Yoruba. They were troublemakers who spoke too loud about their oppression. She knows what that sigh and worry mean. She too is becoming too loud, too opinionated, too curious. She questions too much, like those akata children.

It’s a funny thing to be a first-generation immigrant, she thinks. To not have a concrete sense of belonging, to have a heart split between the original home and the new home. To have a mouth that struggles to capture the intricacies of her mother-tongue, yet comfortably embraces the language of the colonizers.

“Se o ngbo mi?” Her mother asks. She knows the answer to this one.

Be ni ma.”

Osun Taylor is a queer, black, Nigerian-American woman with a passion for feminism, in-your-face queerness and social justice. She particularly enjoys exploring mental illness, intersectionality and life as a first generation immigrant. When she is not writing, she can be found praising black women for existing and falling in love too quickly. She is a staff writer for bluestockings magazine.

Edited by Mimi Frotten and Kristine Mar.

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