Language of Return

the photo the writer describes in the piece in which the writer's grandmother "stands beside my grandfather. Both of them wear Western clothing, my grandfather a black suit with a red tie and my grandmother a blue dress with red embroidery. Their outfits look painted onto them, the clashing hues seeping into each other like watercolor"

For most of her life, my grandmother lived in a cottage by the Lakshadweep Sea in Allappuzha (formerly Alleppey), India. Alleppey is a little city carved into a jungle. When my cousins and I would visit as children, my mother would rent a houseboat for the day, a luxury most locals can’t afford. We’d cruise along the backwaters and lagoons that make Alleppey a popular tourist destination. For these occasions, my uncle would order us a big fish on the mainland that he’d serve to us, cooked but fully intact, on a large banana leaf. He’d extract the eyes with one finger and make a performance of eating them whole. “All the vitamins are in the eyes,” he said.

The formerly two-room home (a bedroom, a kitchen) that housed my grandparents, my mother, and her five siblings was renovated into a two-bedroom, single-family home after most of my uncles and aunts had already grown up and moved out. The last time I saw the cottage in 2012, it still had most of its original rustic charm. Stone slab floors, a kitchen with screen windows you could hear the stray cats through, tropical orchids, plumeria, and a giant mango tree in the yard. That summer in 2012, my grandmother, then 85, climbed the tree in her nightgown, while my aunt, my cousin, and I shouted up at her to come down.

Whether she had begun to lose her mind or whether she had always been that way is unclear to me. All of my memories of my grandmother are strange. Although she had helped raise me (she had traveled across the world to arrive in a Baltimore snowstorm the day after I was born), that summer was the only extended period of time I had spent with her as an adult. Now when I try to remember what her presence felt like, I can only render images of her mouth in motion, soundless. Eating as the elderly do—laboriously. Mouthing rapidly during Sunday church services, as though God might hear her better if she spoke faster. As I imagine is the case with all exiles, political, punitive, or otherwise, it’s difficult for me to separate what is particular to my family and what is “cultural.” I cannot simply ask my mother because, to her, the familial has consumed all culture—it’s her reference point, her backbone, her only truth. Where else, then, am I to look?

In the first few pages of Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, she orients us both personally and historically. She tells us that her father was a freelance photojournalist for United Press International (UPI) during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship in South Korea. “My memory lives inside my father’s camera,” she writes, “the site where my memory was born, where my retina and my father’s overlap.” Choi is a translator and, through her father’s photographs, she finds he, too, is translatable. I have very few photographs of my grandmother, especially of her as a young woman. This may be because my parents misplaced several photo albums beneath the back seat of an auto rickshaw en route to the airport where they would fly to America and begin a new life. But I imagine there is something about my grandmother that would have resisted translation in any case. The best way I know to understand her, the site where my retina and hers overlap, is in language.

Though she completed primary school, my grandmother dropped out in the eighth grade and married young. She lived in a state that was committed to education—in 2016, Kerala was deemed the first in the nation to achieve complete literacy. I imagine she must have been proud of Kerala’s literacy. She revered British English. She was a devout Catholic and had read the Bible from cover to cover a dozen times. She refused every criticism by saying, “1 Corinthians 15:10—by the grace of God, I am what I am.” My mother and her brothers and sisters grew up speaking English at home, though the native tongue of the region is Malayalam. My mother says that when she was young and one of her brothers or sisters made a grammatical error in conversation, my grandmother would tell them to “bring the dictionary” to find their mistake. I remember her correcting me as well, when I would pronounce a word with an American accent and she would ask me to “enunciate,” by which she meant say it the British way. Once, visiting my aunt in Chennai, we drove past some historic parliament buildings along the Bay of Bengal, yellowing with neglect. My grandmother pointed them out. She said, “the Brits used to take care of us, and everything was grander.” After her death, my mother and her brothers and sisters cleared a bunch of old books out of her cottage. Most were waterlogged and moth-eaten. My mother was horrified to open a few of them to find maggots inside. She was able to rescue a small pamphlet called “One Hundred Years of British Poetry” that she gave to me. On the inside, in my grandmother’s neat penmanship, “Barbara Mason, Standard 8” is written.

I had often found her adoration of British language and culture strange and unsettling. Though I am not a colonial scholar, I have tried for years now to explain my grandmother’s worldview through the lens of history. Here is what I do know: the British had cornered India into colonization in 1858 after tying up much of their wealth in the form of complex trade negotiations with the British East India Company for many years prior. Even before they had direct rule of India, the British controlled what was taught in schools, how, and by whom. The classical Indian languages, Sanskrit and Arabic, were taught from 1780 until the late 1820s, after which only Western languages were taught. I don’t believe that the British stopped teaching Indian classical languages because they wanted to actively subjugate Indian people, and there’s evidence to back up that claim. British Anglicists believed that the languages of progress were all Western languages, that the West had intellectual and political superiority over the Orient. Though it was convenient for the empire to control the way their subjects communicated, the way they found and kept work, and the way they advocated for themselves, many British Anglicists may have wanted, earnestly, to educate Indian people. These people were flawed in their inability to imagine a civilization other than their own being an artificer of culture and that flaw, like a virus, has contaminated the minds of many colonized people as well.

The military dictatorship in South Korea began in 1961 following a military coup d’état by Park Chung Hee, who later became President of South Korea. Korea had gained independence from Japan sixteen years prior, in 1945, and the country had been divided arbitrarily along the 38th parallel, with the northern half occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half occupied by the United States. It is this border and the United States’ establishment and militarization of it that serves the framework for DMZ Colony. Just two years after Korean liberation, India gained independence from British rule and was partitioned into the two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The partition between the countries was drawn through the center of Punjab, displacing millions of people, killing more than a million, and causing the greatest migration in the history of the world.

In the second chapter of DMZ Colony, Choi interviews a former political prisoner within the Korean Civilian Control Zone named Ahn Hak-sŏp. Ahn Hak-sŏp describes enduring water torture during the Korean War. The soldiers tortured him in an attempt to get him to admit that he was a Communist Party member, though he never budged. Choi’s unsettling docupoetry of the interview is juxtaposed with her notes and drawings taken at the time of the interview. One drawing depicts a floating stick figure head with two round eyes, a cylindrical nose, and a disturbingly unafflicted smile; an area points to a circle on the figure’s forehead and an arrow pointing to it reads “water.”

Upon first reading the collection, such notes and drawings had eluded my understanding. Even upon re-reading, there was something about them that resisted my interpretation. The collection never does break open completely. Instead, like all the most fascinating poetry, it works like a prism, shedding light according to how, precisely, it’s held. I was compelled by it as soon as I began reading and have since read it a half dozen times, discovering something new with each reading. After the book won the National Book Award last November, my friend and I began to prod once more at the poems, exchanging emails about our interpretations.

“Is language a kind of mind control?” he wrote to me, “When I write down the word for a thing, and you read it, an image of the thing appears in your brain. Even if it’s not exactly the image I see, I still made it appear.”

There’s a famous essay by Ernest Fenollossa and Ezra Pound called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” In the essay, Pound and Fenollossa claim that the Chinese written character is a stylized form of the thing it represents. The essay is a dense swirl of axioms that do not always hold. From it, I procured a shiny little mantra: “Relations are more real and important than the things which they relate.” Fenollossa is referring to the metaphor, the basic unit of the poem, which he calls “the substance and nature of language.” A metaphor selects a set of objects it wants to relate and produces them, in tandem, in our minds. A kind of mind control, maybe.

Even though I write poetry, I wouldn’t agree that poetry is finer than prose. I don’t think that poets are smarter than other writers, than politicians or mathematicians or sociologists. I don’t think we know more about the world. But I do think we have a specific way of thinking that’s useful in deconstructing a worldview—we are not nearly as interested in things as we are in their relations.

Neither imperialism nor colonialism are simple acts of acquisition. Both are motivated by the impressive ideological formation that the colonized people require dominance. An ideology is somewhat of a heuristic metaphor—in this case, the British empire as the mother of its provinces. If that logic follows, then all of us displaced by diaspora are “daughters of neocolony,” to use the term Choi does. In my research on the British empire, I came across a propaganda poster from the Bengal Famine of 1943, which illustrates this well. It shows a British man providing grain to a group of starving children. Beneath it, a caption dictates that it is the responsibility of the British to provide for the impoverished. At face value, the poster seems well-meaning, although it’s well-documented that provincial governments in India and Bengal obstructed the movement of grain that could have helped mitigate the effects of the famine. The Bengali people and their neighbors were ready to provide aid for one another. It was British bureaucracy that had paralyzed them.

After centuries of imperialism and its subtle but patronizing rhetoric, I think it’s important for us daughters of neocolony to remind ourselves often of our self-sufficiency and the self-sufficiency of our ancestors, to voice it confidently, and to reject the white-washed version of history. This is part of the project Don Mee Choi undertakes so elegantly. In her interviews with Ahn Hak-sŏp, which she translates into a series of meandering elliptical phrases, she documents his distrust of education in English and Japanese languages:

I didn’t learn English at school . . . I always skipped my English class . . . that’s how much I despised America . . . not the people but its government . . . I gained my pro-independence awareness in grade two . . . my teacher was like a madman and whipped us when he realized that we only knew Japanese and didn’t know Korean at all . . . when I told my father about it he said that I would understand my teacher when I got older.

Remembering history truthfully often takes a radical type of unlearning—the system has been devised to reward those who remember selectively. During the British Raj, even those factions who had originally been dissenters of English language learning began to change their views around the mid-1800s because of its usefulness in securing well-paying administrative roles in the civil service. The Native Exclusion Act of 1791, which had excluded Indians from all higher government posts, had been reversed because the Crown felt that it might be cheaper to employ Indians in the civil service. Indians who had received a Westernized education were thought to be good candidates for these positions because they were less likely to be critical of their British supervisors.

It’s still a commonly held belief in most countries, including the United States, that a “proper” English education is a necessary prerequisite to any well-paying job in the workforce. This is the case even though the majority of the world does not speak English as their first language. In 2018, census data (which is often flawed or incomplete) showed that 67.3 million people in the United States spoke a language other than English in their homes. Even when non-native speakers learn English and teach their children the language, they face unfounded, though often subtle prejudices. My father grew up speaking Tamil, an Indian vernacular language, at home and in school, since he attended public schools for most of his life in India. This made getting into college much more difficult for him—many of the most prestigious engineering schools in India only accept applicants from high schools where all classes are taught in English. Although he has gained a lot of upward mobility since emigrating to the United States in the 1980s, he is still self-conscious about his accent and asks his employees to correct him when he pronounces words differently from the standard American pronunciation.

I do not speak Tamil, nor do I speak Malayalam. I wasn’t given a traditional Indian name. Although they haven’t stated it explicitly, I imagine that my parents’ reasoning for raising me this way was to make it easier for me to assimilate into American culture and, for the most part, this has proved to be true. I consistently find work I think is meaningful, that pays my bills. My coworkers and superiors are helpful and respectful. I make friends quickly and easily. And I have always loved studying English. It is the only language I can read and write in fluently. I teach a composition class with an objective to improve fluency in Standard Written American English. Nevertheless, I have encountered strangers who have assumed from my appearance that I cannot speak English. A few years ago, I had an upstairs neighbor (whom I had only met once) I could hear ranting to her boyfriend that I was dirty, didn’t pay my taxes, and “couldn’t even speak English.”

When my grandfather got an administrative job at a tea estate in Peermade in the early ’50s, it had only been a couple decades since it had been British-owned. My grandfather lived in a bachelor bungalow on the hill station near the railroad. He had a slide projector from which he would project photos of his travels to different cities. He called these projections “movies” and charged the neighbors five rupees for admission. He had a hand-poked tattoo of a small star on his wrist. When his children asked why he had gotten it, he couldn’t tell them. He took a train and a ferry back home for the weekends. He had a dog named Bonzo. I know all of this about my grandfather, even though he died when I was only two years old. I loved hearing stories about him. Perhaps I loved them precisely because I did not have to know him—he is a mirage to me, an image in my mind.

My grandmother was alive for twenty-six years of my life. I knew her. And yet, somehow, I never really did—she had always pretended to be someone she was not. Here is what I know: she was born shortly before World War II, when India had just begun to fracture British rule in the final process of the Indian Self-Rule Movement. The Indian National Congress was established in seven of eleven Indian provinces. Her early childhood and young adulthood were set against the backdrop of World War II and Partition, which was characterized by bloody conflict between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. A Catholic herself, she may not have fully understood these clashes. She may have seen her lineage as intrinsically European because the village where she’d grown up had been colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, long before British rule. Her family name was Mason. I have written so many poems about her, in which she is like an apparition and all of her small, indecipherable gestures are symbolic. I keep returning to her.

I do not know if it is fair to make my grandmother a symbol of the empire she is a product of. Neither do I know if I can see any part of her as separate from it. I feel like I’m pinning a frenzy of red threads and language becomes my only reference point. But to crack language open, I need to chase it. For example, my mother makes “brinjal.” This is the word she uses to refer to the eggplant curry she was taught to make by my grandmother. Where, then, does the word “brinjal” come from? It’s a variant of the word “aubergine,” which is used in British English, German, French, Dutch, and most South Asian and South African regions of the world. “Aubergine” comes from the Arabic word “bāḏinjān,” and probably dates back to the Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula. Arabic became a language commonly spoken in India during the time of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, but the history of the word “aubergine” goes back even farther—it was borrowed into Persian languages from Indic languages (like Sanskrit, another classical language), but was borrowed into Indic languages from Dravidian languages (like Tamil, my dad’s native language), which are spoken more frequently in South India, where my mother’s particular recipe for brinjal originated. Even this word for a food I have grown up eating has become so entrenched in empire I cannot meaningfully trace it. And what bothers me more is that when I relate all of this to my mother, she doesn’t believe me. Doubtless, my grandmother would not have believed me either. To them, the word has always had only Portuguese origins. And if that’s what they’re convinced of, the truth is of small consequence: it is ideology, not truth, that breeds empire.

My grandmother did not die in Alleppey. She died in Chennai, on the other side of India’s coastal Southern finger, where my aunt lives. When she died, I was somewhere between Kansas and New Mexico, on my way to make a temporary home in a new city, one I wouldn’t stay in for very long. The last time I’d spoken to her had been on a videochat where she hacked and hacked, her eyes jaundiced, the camera directed haphazardly at her forehead. My mother was in the background, prompting her. “It’s Rhea,” she said, “You took care of her when she was a baby.”

“Ah, yes,” said my grandmother, “She was lying in her crib. She told me to get out. She must have thought I was a crab.”

I wrote that down—it seemed its own little poem, so simple and flush with concrete details. It does not matter if what she said happened. It likely did not. Still, there’s a truth to it. There’s a photograph of me with my grandmother at a Grandparent’s Day breakfast in grade school—I am seven or eight, in the plaid jumper and peter pan collar that was our daily Catholic school uniform. My bangs curl against my forehead. I scowl discernibly. “You always wished that Grandma was . . . someone else,” my mother said as we looked at the photo. Perhaps I did not want to be related to her because of what that relation might indicate— that I was a hoax, a fake American, with a fake British grandmother.

Other memories are as nebulous. One summer, when I was a child, she visited us at our old house. While my parents were at work, I rode my bike down the big hill in the neighborhood. I had wanted to avoid spending a day with my grandmother. At the end of the street, a car pulled out and I swerved to avoid hitting it, crashing my bike into the curb and slinging the chain off the chainstay. I had ripped a hole into my jeans and dark blood and gravel mixed at its opening. I walked the bike back to the house feeling sorry for myself. When I got there, my grandmother ran out, trying to explain a misunderstanding she’d had with the landscaper.

“I told him I am just an old lady. I do not know anything.”

I gestured at my bleeding knee and my grandmother balked.

“Oh my God!” she said, “Go get the dettol!”

Perhaps that memory rings most true. My grandmother was scared and unhappy. She blamed it on others. She was needy. She was reckless. She contradicted herself constantly, in the way that only a person who truly has no sense of herself can. As a child, I’d known she was as Indian as I was Indian, which is to say entirely. But both of us were cultural exiles and I liked to think that I wore it better than she did. Perhaps she would have benefitted, as I feel I have, from the careful study of language, from poetry, and not the contrived and prescribed kind of poetry one finds in a pamphlet titled “One Hundred Years of British Poetry.”

“I need to excavate the faceless face with language,” Choi wrote in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, quoting the South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, whose work she has translated into English. The quote is a reference to Hyesoon’s struggle with chronic pain, which informs her poetic process. In an interview with Choi that serves as the Translator’s Note for the English version of her collection Autobiography of Death, Hyseoon says, “Pain is physical and rhythmic, whereas anguish is mental and melodic. My pain had no meaning. The only thing in that meaningless space was rhythm. Rhythm is bodiless, it exists alone like the planetary orbits that keep the stars of the universe in motion.”

Her words remind me of the old Fenollossa mantra: “Relations are more real more important than the things which they relate.” Poems operate on the visceral sense that rhythm makes. Rhythm, unlike my body, my identity, is something I can understand. And yet the body remains a convenient surface on which the poet can map ideological distortion. In DMZ Colony, Ahn Hak-sŏp details how he was held in a 24.9 square foot cell with ten other prisoners and asked to change his political view. “The person behind you had to lean against the wall, then you leaned against him and the person in front could only sit on your lap / That is how we slept / like spoons / like bean sprouts.” Like spoons, says Ahn Hak-sŏp—not like people at all.

In an old photo on my grandmother’s Facebook profile—which she never learned to use herself—she stands beside my grandfather. Both of them wear Western clothing, my grandfather a black suit with a red tie and my grandmother a blue dress with red embroidery. Their outfits look painted onto them, the clashing hues seeping into each other like watercolor. She looks more like my cousin in this photo than she does me, but my mother likes to tell me at specific moments (when I am being stubborn or selfish) that I am just like my grandmother. When I click away from the photo, I see her “Likes.” Most are the kind of kitschy Facebook fluff the elderly bricolage into an Internet identity for themselves. One page shows an image of the Indian flag superimposed with the Union Jack. The page is called “I Am an Anglo-Indian and I Am Proud to Be One.”

I am not sure what my grandmother means by “Anglo-Indian,” in this sense. It’s a term that could conceivably be used to describe any person of Indian origin living today. It’s an order word. “In 1945, it took less than thirty minutes for order words to be carried out,” writes Choi, “to divide the country I was born in, along the 38th parallel north. Order words compel division, war, and obedience around the world.” Though sometimes the effect of order words is war or abuse or death, sometimes their effect is more subtle. It permeates into each successive generation like a recessive gene. It’s my belief that poetry can act as a microscope. I am still trying to summon the words to describe who I am in my waking life, but in the life of the poems, they come alive, they prompt me to keep returning.

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