a brief telling of my relationship to mine. also: take a writing class with me
Hello, hello. I got back from a really beautiful, joyful, emotionally satisfying homegoing to India at the close of February. Before the trip, my first without my natal family in tow, I did register that, alongside eager anticipation, I felt lightly anxious about a few things.
Here was one: my desiccated language skills and my child-of-diaspora embarrassment about them.
First, of course, there was the matter of the Hindi. I’d be spending five days in North India, after a lifetime of only living in and visiting the South, and my Hindi is and was somewhere between nonexistent and execrable. My homie Sreshtha and I embarked on a course of “Hindi practice” via WhatsApp voice messages each morning, and the resulting exchanges were literally so funny that I have transcribed/screenshotted the best of them to be transposed in some appropriate future work of fiction. (After I redact the proprietary poetry-world gossip-but-in-Hindi, of course.)
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But it wasn’t my Hindi that worried me, because five days is five days, and Hindi was never mine to start with.
Malayalam. Means land of mountains. Means you’ll be humbled, edi. A palindrome, as various uncles will be happy to tell you, spelled the same forward and back. Malayalam’s a Tamil-descended Dravidian language with about 38 million native speakers across desh and diaspora. It has a complex grammar that I’ve never mastered, a sonic range that English cannot hold a candle to.
I don’t speak my mother tongue beyond a two-year-old’s fluency. I can understand it reasonably well. It’s a funny position to be in linguistically, a little like you’re standing inside a box composed entirely of one-way-mirrors.
Though it wasn’t always this way.
I was fluent in Malayalam and only in Malayalam when I started kindergarten in Muscat, Oman, with an accompanying pannier of about sixty stray English words and phrases, from “how are you?” to “bus is coming” to “I busy, please go away.” When school began, my North Indian, Hindi-speaking teachers chided me for my sin of monolingualism in a language they could not understand—and in some cases, cheerfully despised.
When I did not improve my ways, persisting in speaking to other kids from Kerala in our language, they sent me home with notes safetypinned to my shirt, requesting that only English be spoken at home around me, so that I could learn better.
My parents, in their telling, decided: sure, fine, okay. They were happy to speak their English and improve mine. Our mother tongue became a grownups-only language in my house, one they used to speak with each other in low voices, behind closed doors, accompanying side-eyed laughs.
And then at some point, around the age of ten, I realized that my Malayalam had dried out from underuse. Riverbed after long drought. I’ve never gotten it back. I’ve wondered, over the years, what shadow of it is somewhere there in my brain, buried underneath some dross of memes and current events and online brain poisoning.
It’s not the end of the world, my lost Malayalam, or so I console myself. Really, I’m choosing to spare you my big feelings about my language loss, because there is nothing original about my embarrassment, wistfulness, or occasional twinge of shame when it comes to not speaking the language of my family and ancestors. At a pragmatic level: much of my surviving extended family in Kerala speak English, even if many are more comfortable in Malayalam. I am in the process of attempting to relearn it, but it’s not a well-resourced language for learners in the U.S.; it’s hard to find good teachers and study resources.
And of course, fluency, then hyperfluency, then expertise, in English changed the game for me in a hundred ways. It eased my immigration in my late teens, it allowed me entry to rooms I would have otherwise struggled to enter, it meant that I could publish, through mainstream presses, the books I now write.
Still, the Malayalam I know, the kind I speak at home, with my blood family, saturates my book. One of the reviews of All This Could Be Different I was most moved by was the only essay to note this, Namrata Verghese’s piece Illegibly Queer for The Millions.
Sneha’s messy queerness goes hand-in-hand with Mathews’ formal choice to resist translating Malayalam. Both strip All This Could Be Different of the novel form’s expected transparency. Sneha’s character is wrapped in gauzy cling-film: we can see her, but we can’t quite make out her contours. We can’t touch her. To borrow a phrase from Saidiya Hartman‘s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Sneha lays claim to her “right to opacity.” Her blurriness flouts the pervasive understanding of novels as bridges to other worlds.
Our minds never truly lose our mother tongues. Studies have indicated that “lost” first languages leave their permanent mark on the brain. The English I speak and write has always been shaped by my Malayalam, river that first cut and formed my canyon of language. Even if I never truly regain my mother tongue, its canniness, harmonies, musicality, plosives, affectionate rudeness, intimacies, deferences, and the simple range of sounds it holds — far vaster than the English alphabet — has put its stamp on me.
For the first many days in India, as I typically do, I kept all my spoken Malayalam elementary, brief, and functional. Attempting to balance being understood, not seeming foreign-snobby, and not embarrassing myself.
But then on the tenth day, I said, “I’d rather have the table by the window, brother” to a server without thinking, without my typical mapping out of every sentence, without mentally translating from English.
On the twelfth day, upon a tour guide type in Munnar, Kerala being scammy and refusing to admit his grifteration, I finally said, temper heating in the voice I’d kept somewhere between tart and calm throughout our call, "Eda, don't think you can cheat me because I have a U.S. passport and don't speak Malayalam, okay, I know what things cost, I am from here."
It was only after I said it that I realized it wasn't English I'd just spoken.
That wasn’t the last instance of this. Like long-lost but distant relatives, new sentences began to show up placidly and without warning or predictability, waiting for me to attend to them.
But then, it was time to board the flight back, make my return.
upcoming events here
Including launches with Priya Guns (tonight!) and Rafael Frumkin for their amazing books, and this sure-to-be-delicious food x literature offering from the mind (and chef knife) of genius Evan Hanczor.
take a writing class with me, if you’d like
MAKING UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS with Writing Co-Lab
How do you write the sort of character who feels like a real person, the kind of character the reader feels like they know, are deeply invested in, will miss when the book is done? This is an interactive and generative craft class focused on making memorable, three-dimensional, and compelling major characters, in your fiction or nonfiction. Craft pointers and exercises around writing dialogue, climax, character-building, and ethics will be discussed. 2 sessions | Monday May 22nd and Monday May 29th | 8pm EST/5pm PST | online | $120
WRITING THE PARENT with Writing Co-Lab
An interactive and generative craft class on representing parental figures in fiction. We will discuss fictionalization of the wounded/ wounding parent, immigrant or otherwise marginalized parent, absent parent, the ideal parent, and the overwhelming or larger than life parent. Craft pointers and exercises around writing dialogue, climax, character-building, and ethics will be discussed. Note: while this class centers fiction writing, the majority of its craft lessons are applicable to nonfiction. 2 sessions | Tuesday May 30th and Monday June 5th | 8pm EST/5pm PST | online | $150
Soon to come: a generative writing class as a collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and the Asian American Writers Workshop, free. May 9 in-person, May 15 online, save the date, sign up link to come. (The vibe for this is less teach-y, more me making space for you to get some writing done for an hour and a half.) Also soon to come: in the fall, I will be teaching two workshops on writing romantic and familial intimacies with Kundiman, open to all writers of color.
Also! I would love to hear from y’all about topics you’re looking to take classes on. Feel free to comment here or DM me. Finally, I really recommend checking out the range of classes offered by Writing CoLab, a co-operative of teaching writers. For working writers: particular plug for Abeer Hoque’s June class on writing grant and residency statements, which I took years ago and benefited so much from.
longform aka books: Couplets by my brilliant friend Maggie Millner, out now, a reread of Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, currently reading Regenesis by George Monbiot and Chemmeen by Thakazhi. If you’re looking for experimental fiction, I recommend The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia, freshly out.
shortform: After The Fatwa by Zain Khalid, this op-ed about red states and green energy by David-Wallace Wells, Imagine what We’ll Build For Each Other with Jules Gill-Peterson. I’ve also been reading a lot of stuff about air pollution…I will spare you…for now.
music: There Will Be No Super-Slave by Ghais Guevara
film: Saint Omer, The Banshees of Inisherin, Strange Days, The Meyerowitz Stories, all excellent
tv: watching The Sopranos fiiiiinally, in love/ in fascination.
It’s surreal to me that season one of The Sopranos is set in the nineties. (Also, as an aside, the show should be called Men Talking.) Its world feels like an approximation of the 1950s. I was watching it thinking: shit bro everything has changed. Then again, I reminded itself, Strange Days—with its cyberpunk stylings, unnerving speculative VR technology, and story of racial uprising—came out and was set in the nineties as well. Strange Days could have easily been set in 2020, and perhaps would have fared better if it had.
Maybe there is no such thing as an evenly distributed present when it comes to culture, and maybe there never has been. This is why we need, have always needed, narrative to give us meaning. But beyond the shaping intelligence of a story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we’ve been is something more multitudinous. Like the waxes and oils in a lava lamp, conservatism, progress, futurity all glide, throb, slink around each other in the same instant of time.
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