Community Radio Radio De La Comunidad Frog vt,s A ive For A au. itt-tra Lid Diverse City P.O. Box 2116 Austin, TX 78768-2116 Visit us on the [email protected] www.koop.org radical strategy of using Scots-inflected dialect throughout his 1996 novel Trainspotting, but she might have noted how such weirding was anticipated by Mark Twain, who revolutionized the American novel by composing Huckleberry Finn in a boy’s vernacular, one indebted to African American speech. Though she champions Chinglish, Spanglish, and other challenges to standard English, Ch’ien has nothing to say about Ebonics and efforts by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Sonia Sanchez, and Tupac Shakur to deploy black English as a literary medium. Increased ease of travel and communication has surely multiplied the incidence of weirding in recent times, but Ch’ien takes for granted a qualitative not merely quantitative change in the use of weird English in contemporary literature. Though Nabokov, Kingston, Roy, Diaz, and Rushdie represent a wide geographic and cultural range of English weirdings, Ch’ien ignores one of the most active laboratories of linguistic fusion: Africa, where collisions with Zulu, Ibo, Kikuyu, Yoruba, Somali, and other languages have dramatically transformed English literature. Nabokov, who was forced to abandon his homeland while still an adolescent and wrote exquisite prose in Russian, French, and English, is appropriately treated as a major practitioner of weird English. Throughout his life, he translated among all three of his languages and delighted in interlingual word-play. Ch’ien analyzes how Pnin evokes the pathos of its title character through his inability to master standard English and how functions as what Nabokov called “a record of my love affair with the English language.” She ignores Pale Fire whose narrator, Charles Kinbote, mixes his imaginary native language, Zemblan, with erudite English. Yet Nabokov is an exception to Ch’ien’s generalization that weirding is “an ethnically driven phenomenon” and that “weirdEnglish writers become conscious of language as a practice of their ethnicity?’ No one but a census clerk would try to pigeonhole the nonpareil Nabokov, who disdained both Tsarist emigres and Soviet apologists, within a community of Russian immigrants. Though born in California, Kingston spoke the Say Yup dialect until age eight; at one point, Ch’ien casually, erroneously refers to her as an immigrant, like Nabokov and Diaz. She champions Kingston’s three novels, The Woman Warrior China Men Tripmaster Monkey Chinglish as a record of Chinese adaptation to America. Ch’ien claims that, under the dubious influence of fashionable linguistic theories, Kingston’s earliest fiction attempts to mimic the ideographic features of written Chinese but that her later work more closely approximates qualities of the spoken tongue. Ch’ien herself often privileges the oral over the written, the auditory over the visual, presenting weird English as an echo of actual, heterogeneous speech rather than as words crafted for the printed page. Roy grew up in Kerala, southern India, speaking three languages, and Ch’ien reads her sole novel, The God of Small Things anarchy of the linguistic, literary, and political. It is, she claims, a work that transgresses the norms of English in order to subvert hierarchy and hegemony, to provide an “antidote to the dominance of bigness?’ Diaz, another young writer whose literary contribution thus far consists of a single book, Drown a weapon of resistance. A native of the Dominican Republic, he calls his attempt to retrieve elements of Spanish, the language that was all but eradicated from him, “my revenge on English.” In her pioneering analyses of Roy and Diaz, Ch’ien reads both as postcolonials who enact violence against standard English as a strategy of political and cultural insurgency. Born in Bom bay to a multilingual family, Rushdie is probably the most prominent contemporary practitioner of weird English. Examining The Moor’s Last Sigh The Ground Beneath Her Feet ly, Ch ‘ien argues that Rushdie’s position between cultures and languages leads him to “a kind of semantic relativism where no meaning seems to hold more value than another.” Describing his verbose prose as “endless, mostly unintelligible chatter;’ she nevertheless claims that he succeeds “in creating an open, semantically experimental and democratic universe with inevitable meaningfulness.” It is hard to understand how she can reconcile unintelligibility with “inevitable meaningfulness;’ unless by this point in her book Ch’ien has herself attempted to weird English, and to defy its canons of clarity and cogency. E. E. Cummings weirded English by omitting punctuation, Walt Whitman by expanding his breath. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake dozen tongues or more, is only the most striking illustration of the truth that every original book creates its own language. Using the expected rhetoric of academic discourse, Weird English adds to a long and clamorous conversation. Ch’ien rediscovers that literature is language made strange. Steven G. Kellman, who teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is author of The Translingual Imagination 7/30/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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