Three writers discuss language and power.

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This conversation is co-published by PEN Transmissions and Free Word, as part of Free Word’s ‘Finding Power in Isolation’ season.


WILL FORRESTER: I want to start by asking about languages other than English in the UK. As writers, do you see Ga, Yorùbá and GTR languages as being subject to oppressive systems of power, or do they rather hold the power to liberate from those very systems? Perhaps it is both.

KỌ́LÁ TÚBỌ̀SÚN: There’s something I have often noticed – a moment of escape in an otherwise stressful time. I’ll be walking through a train station, or a park, or a shop, and a word or phrase of Yorùbá will ring out of someone’s mouth. They will either be on the phone, or in conversation with another person nearby. Once, someone was calling her daughter in a house from outside. I had been prancing down that street trying to find the house of a friend and colleague who is British, and the ambush of Yorùbá was both jarring and warm. I had not expected it, but it had provided a moment of peace and calm. The speaker hadn’t even noticed that I had turned to find out the source of her voice. And she had not met my gaze. So what I have found, each time it has happened, is that as a stranger in the country it reminds me of another place where things are different; of journeys beyond my present state; of home and comfort; of possibilities. That it happens this way for me, a temporary resident of the country, makes me imagine how much more value and power such encounters must hold for people who have not seen home in many years. It is, perhaps, particularly affecting for me because, usually – because I do not know these people and I am unable to immediately breach the distance between us, strangers – there is a limit to how much utility I can physically derive from the encounter, which is often very short. It is, in the end, a private moment of conceit, whose value lasts beyond the moment.

VICTORIA ADUKWEI BULLEY: It is both. To draw upon Kọ́lá’s answer, encountering languages of one’s heritage can offer a sense of endurance. The fact that there are Yorùbá or Ga communities in the UK is inseparable from a longstanding context of imperialism, colonialism and contemporary global commerce – all interlinked processes that act favourably upon some and oppressively upon others. These languages are present here in that exact way that Stuart Hall said: ‘We are here because you were there’. For me, the vision of liberation is rooted in the phrase ‘We are here’ – and not as a trite celebration of the fact that that our communities exist in the UK, but instead an acknowledgement of a hereness that simply affirms that we are alive, and thus that the language is alive, even if it has been eroded in spite of history.

DAMIAN LE BAS: Systems of power have influenced Gypsy and Traveller languages in different ways. I’m sure they will be familiar to speakers of many other languages, including other languages spoken in modern Britain. Gypsy and Traveller languages have often been crucial, precious equipment for dealing with direct action by the state. Situations, if you like, that happen because of bigger systems. The ability to talk to your family in a way that the authorities can’t understand is a big deal if you are being evicted or harassed by the police or – as was often the case in earlier centuries – threatened with deportation, imprisonment, or even hanging simply for being a Gypsy: it’s an identity which has at various points been a criminal offence in Britain. In this way, somewhat ironically, the prevailing power structure could be said to have helped preserve these languages by making their possession so important. But then there’s the other side. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, speaking Romani could get you executed, so there is an inherited belief that you have to watch how blatantly you talk the language. At a personal level, I’m still very cautious – probably unduly so – about talking Romani in public. I tend to keep my voice down when I do. My wife thinks I’m paranoid and happily talks Romani loudly on the bus. But I find that people react differently to a language which is clearly not English, yet is spoken with a British accent. There’s this idea that something must be either foreign or from here. So languages that challenge that idea can be a bit of a gadfly. They put a spanner in the works of the binary way we sometimes think about these things. 

Do they also hold the power to liberate from bad systems of power? I’m not sure what I think about that. Having a different or additional mother-tongue can make you feel liberated in the sense of having this other way of seeing things, but it can also make you feel weird and isolated and uncomfortable. When I was a kid it was more the latter; nowadays it’s more the former. With Gypsies and Travellers specifically, I do reckon the knowledge that we have (or had, where they’ve faded away) languages of our own, if it was widely disseminated, could help us to be seen as legitimate peoples with cultures like everyone else, rather than just the scum of society. And the languages can come in handy in certain situations. But I don’t think speaking a minority language can fix something like the state’s belief that nomadism has no place in the modern world, or the rarely voiced but clearly prevalent belief that only people from certain backgrounds should be allowed to live in the countryside. 

WF: Could you talk a little about the relationships between these languages and the idea of indigeneity? I feel there is much complexity in the connections of languages to space and cultural geography, and in turn to migration.

VAB: Indigeneity is a word I return to often. It describes, for me, a framework for living that might sustainably accommodate the wellbeing of myself as an individual, and that of the world around me — by destroying any concept of division between the two. As someone who is in a process of learning Ga, the language of my heritage, my ambition is of course to speak it. But, actually, it’s more so to be able to embody it.

Indigenous languages across the world contain complete approaches to how we might be in right relationship not only with our human contemporaries, but with animals, plants and minerals. It’s not a coincidence that as these languages succumb to the force of imperialist and capitalist processes, those aforementioned relationships fall concurrently out of balance. We know this. There’s a phrase in Ga that’s used during naming ceremonies for newborns, which says The Ga child speaks after the wind blows. If you take nothing else from it, this tiny excerpt of a much larger ceremony tells us that we are to respect nature and be humble. It also speaks about adaptability, which is a lens that indigenous cultures are not often seen through. Often, they are seen as fixed and archaic. And so the idea of living in an indigenous language – existing within the frameworks for sustainability that a language holds – is important to me. It applies even if you consider space and migration: if you carry the rubrics of a language within you, that relationship to the world applies wherever you go; that world can (have potential to) exist wherever you do.

KT: I like Victoria’s idea of ‘embodying’ a language more than just speaking it. This is important. I wrote a few years ago about the idea of being Yorùbá in the world today as opposed to, say, the 4th Century Ifẹ̀, where my role in society would have been defined by more than just my ethnic/racial identity; and how, having been separated from the indigenous religion of my people via Christianity, the slave trade and colonialism, what I am (and by extension what most of the people who call themselves Yorùbá today are), though one leg short of the earlier tripod of an identity, still retains a type of complexity. Am I less Yorùbá because I don’t speak the language? Or because I don’t worship a Yorùbá deity? Or because I am not even an African – as is the case of may initiates and converts in Brazil and Cuba, who are fully Yorùbá by religion and nothing else? Not even racially. I’m fascinated and challenged by these ideas, and what they force me to confront: that there are many ways of being an indigene or native. And it provides the tools to dismantle other arguments like the one says a Nigerian English speaker is not a ‘native’ speaker of English just because they’re not white, or don’t live in a Western society.

DLB: What interests me most is who gets to define the parameters of a term like ‘indigenous’. And, yes, this conversation is bound to have profound effects on our thinking about space, cultural geography and migration. Where are the lines drawn and why? In the British context, for instance, it’s just assumed that certain languages are indigenous, and others are immigrant. The languages generally treated as indigenous were historically spoken, for the most part, by white people. These assumptions are there, but they just coast along unexplained – maybe because it would make people blush to just come out and say something like that. It also begs the question of why we are so quick to see linguistic heritage as synonymous or contiguous with other kinds of ethnic heritage.

As far as I can tell, the Brythonic and Goidelic languages of the British Isles (Welsh and Cornish being Brythonic, Irish and Gaelic being Goidelic) are descendants of the tongues that have been spoken for the longest on this archipelago. So why is it unambiguous that English is an indigenous language? It is descended from languages that have been spoken here for about 1,500 years. Why is that long enough if the 500, maybe 550 years that Romani has been spoken here mean it’s an immigrant language? Is it even helpful that we discuss languages in such fixed terms – sort of silo terms – when they’re interacting all the time? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I think it’s important to ask them. And what about languages that used to be spoken here but aren’t any more? Pictish in the north of Scotland, yes, but also the various languages of the deeply diverse Roman presence in Britain. The Roman army was international in its makeup. Along the wind-whipped fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall, were the Amazigh languages of north Africa, the pre-romance languages of what is now Spain, spoken alongside the Latin and Greek that interrupted the Brythonic homogeneity of before? Let’s not forget that this was all happening before anyone in what is now England spoke English, because there was no concept of England then. I think languages can help confirm that indigeneity is a more slippery concept than we might have assumed. ‘Slippery’ does not mean problematic or invalid: it merely means mercurial, difficult to grasp. Having more in common with a fish than a hammer or gun. 

WF: You’ve all spoken a little about resistance – about affirming, confronting, dismantling, challenging, putting spanners in works. Through what means can literature broadly, and particularly poetry – in relation to these languages – resist? Or need it not resist at all?

KT: Over the last couple of years, I’ve been started thinking about how translation can play a role in this battle. Every major translation prize has grants to translate works from an indigenous language into English (or any major European language), but none for translating works from English into those languages. Since discovering this, I have made a conscious effort to translate work – especially contemporary work by Nigerian writers working in English – back into Nigerian languages. Perhaps it is a sign of the balance of power, and of our priorities, that our own writing communities and funding sources haven’t found this to be an important opportunity for language revitalisation. But it is a huge gap. Every translation into English only enriches English in the long run. But if more people can read Shakespeare or Chimamanda or Evaristo in Yorùbá, wherever they are in the world, I think we’d have begun the long process of bringing these languages to relevance, and enriching the space for dialogue.

DLB: It’s strange to look back and remember that, once, I never imagined my language could even be in poetry. Because, as a kid, poetry was ‘proper’ English in books at school, and where it was poetry by people from places around the world, it was still in English, even if there was the odd non-English word that intrigued me. So I would not have been surprised to go through my life never seeing any Romani in literature at all. And even had that been the case, it would still have been resisting in some way, simply by surviving. Resisting the oversimplification of everything by surviving as a spoken language. And even had it ceased to be spoken, it would still have been resisting all that, as a memory, or even as a language sleeping, with only its name remembered. 

But it does appear in literature and drama, and in broadcasting. I’ve never thought of this as resistance before: I’m just very happy to see it, because I love literature and love Romani. I suppose there is one very specific way in which it constitutes resistance: it is resistance to the tawdry insistence by certain intellectuals that it’s a language – and a connected culture – condemned to a perpetual state of decline. Part of a vanishing or already-vanished past. This is laughable, really: it’s used to discuss Brexit and iPhones and coronavirus as it was once used to talk about basket-weaving, cutlass-sharpening or the army coming to confiscate the horses. This is one really powerful thing the arts can do with regard to languages: disabuse us of the illusion that they must remain attached to certain circumstances. I love the way poetry in particular can do that: just say ‘I’m using this language for this, and there’s nothing you can do about it’.

VAB: I relate to both Kọ́lá and Damian’s answers here. Because of the way things are with the dominance of English and other ironically named ‘Modern Foreign Languages’, it always feels special to me to see books written in languages that haven’t been so dominating. Even when I look at a text that’s written in Ga, my gladness isn’t diminished by the fact that I can’t read it. I do think that languages resist naturally in that they are always adapting to accommodate new technologies – languages move as we do, they are dynamic and fluid.

WF: I want also to ask about connection and isolationn – something that feels very pressing in our current moment. Languages can separate, but they can also link; they are at once the currency of community, and something whose translation can foster exchange across communities. Could you all speak a little about language and community, how that relates to the construction and deconstruction of different forms of borders, and – a big question here – whether we should be striving to translate from, between and into Ga, Yorùbá and GTR languages, or not?

DLB: Yes, languages can separate and they can also link. And sometimes the way they separate is what gives them such power to link. This is true both within and across communities. A language like Romani has so often been used when standing up to abuse that continuing to use it now reminds its speakers of that resilience. And opening the language up to new eyes and ears and mouths and minds can forge entirely new links, genuinely undreamed-of links across time and space. I think this is especially true when you have a language that has traditionally been seen as a secret language. Or a language which you can’t walk into a shop and buy a crash-course in because nobody ever thought it was worth learning (in this case, both apply). Perhaps that can lead to an enhanced sense of a door having been opened. A door between worlds that you’d been taught must always remain closed. 

But this also leads to some difficult questions, like what to do when there is a vocal and/or powerful opposition to the translation of a language. This is the case with some Gypsy and Traveller dialects. With Sinti-Romani, the language of German Romani people, there are activists who will remove any books about it from libraries and bookshops because they are vehemently opposed to its being taught to anyone who is not a native speaker. I genuinely do not know how to feel about this. It seems so tragic, such a symbol of fear in a way, and yet this is a language which Nazis learned in order to gain people’s trust so that they could experiment on and then murder them. So many languages around the world have similar histories. I’ve experienced a bit of abuse from other Romani people for using our language in my work and, as they see it, ‘telling the gorjies whatall our words mean’, or similar. I try to be sympathetic, but on the other side, they’re trying to censor me and others as artists, and I simply can’t agree with that.

KT: I am for translation as a way of expanding space for dialogue and imagination. But there is one more thing it does that I only noticed when I started translating contemporary work by Nigerian writers into Yorùbá. I have had to confront the ways in which my language has also been an agent of oppression. The only available word to describe ‘homosexual’ in Yorùbá has been a word that means ‘ass-fucker’ – a slur, used always in that context, which was never meant as a way of describing sexual orientation. So when I have had translate ‘gay’ in contemporary literature, a new way of expressing it that captures both the judgment-neutral and gender-neutral element of the word in English has to be devised. Another example is ‘feminism’, which did not exist in the language as a recognisable word until a few years ago. I have heard of similar problems in Hausa, where one judgmental adjective is reserved for non-Muslims and another for Muslims. Almost every Nigerian language I know has a variation of problem, where prejudices have been built into the way we speak to and about each other, and accepted as part of the ‘culture’. Ask a Yorùbá person what an Igbo person is called in Yorùbá and vice versa, or what an Igbo person calls a Hausa person in their language and vice versa, and be forced to confront a legacy of suspicion and hurt. I believe that translating between our languages is a very good way to engage with this problem, which can have long-term effects both on bringing the languages into modern times, and bringing the people who speak them into a new realisation of a buried problem.

VAB: Kọ́lá mentioned that translation often takes place from other languages into English, and less the other way around. This was quite central to what I was thinking about with my project MOTHER TONGUES, in which poets worked with their mothers to translate their work out of English. The direction of the transfer of creativity is not neutral; it mirrors power structures. And so I would like to see more work translated not just out of English but equally between non-European minority languages. This is important because, ultimately, it’s a very recent thing that so many of us are monolingual. My mother speaks two West African languages, Ga and Twi. A long time ago, this would have been common, a result of the proximity and coexistence of different cultures. Translation between such languages can help to promote that.

KT: I want to finish by saying this. I found out recently that the word ‘loot’, which has been so weaponised in the US over the last few days, was itself looted from Hindi and Urdu. The language we use is important. The looting of the Ọba’s palace in Benin in 1897 is not often described as ‘looting’. In the British Museum, one of the items from that ‘expedition’ is labelled as having been ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria. The way in which language is deployed to demonise and other stares us in the face. Yesterday, US Senator Tom Cotton used the phrase ‘our citizens’ – a phrase specifically meant to other those protesting in the streets, whom he then proceeded to deem legitimate targets for military violence. Words like ‘thugs’ and ‘riot’ have been weaponised for political ends against people of colour for years. These dimensions – of the power that language holds – seem important to mention right now.

­­­­­­­­­­­­Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer and filmmaker. Winner of a 2018 Eric Gregory Award for promising British poets under 30, she has held residencies in the USA, Brazil, and the V&A Museum in London. Her debut pamphlet is Girl B, and she is the director of MOTHER TONGUES, a poetry, translation and film project exploring the indigenous language heritages of black and brown poets. Victoria is a doctoral candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she is the recipient of a 2019 Technē scholarship for practice-based research in Creative Writing.

Damian Le Bas is a writer and filmmaker from the south coast of England. His first book, The Stopping Places: A Journey through Gypsy Britain, was published by Chatto & Windus in 2018. It won the Somerset Maugham Award, a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award, was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year. In 2019 Damian presented the critically acclaimed documentary A Very British History: Romany Gypsies on BBC Four.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a linguist, writer, scholar, and language advocate born in Ìbàdàn, Nigeria. He was educated there, in Kenya, and in the United States. His debut collection of poetry, Edwardsville by Heart, was published by Wisdom’s Bottom Press, Oxford, in 2018. He has also worked as a literary translator from English to Yorùbá and from Yorùbá to English. His language advocacy earned him the Premio Ostana in 2016, a prize given by Chambra D’Oc in Italy, for work and advocacy in the mother tongue, becoming the first African so-honoured. He’s currently a Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library in London.

Will Forrester is Editor of PEN Transmissions.

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