It took me years to feel at home in North America, and when I did, it was through the writings of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Thomson Highway, and Eden Robinson—authors who wove character and landscape together in ways that resonated with me. I don’t mean to suggest that there is an overlap of style or structure among these writers as much as that there is a consciousness of the characters bound in a relationship with the land. This tendency to interpret culture through landscape comes to me from the early Sangam / guild Tamil literary practice of embedding subjects in emotional and economic relationships with land, formalized in the genres or modes of திணை / tinai.iSivathamby, "Early South Indian Society." Sangam poetry recognized five distinct tinai / landscapes of தமிழகம்( / Thamizhakam:iiThamizhakam is a geographical designation for lands where Tamil was spoken prior to imperial geopolitical constructs of nation. For an exploration of the Tamil region in historical perspective see Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson. "Introduction" in Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, eds. Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2008), 2-10. the coast, the fields, the desert, the forest, and the mountains, each of which had its own flora, fauna, musical sounds, and ambient moods.
Like any living language, Tamil does not remain fossilized within ancient traditions, but the modes of tinai persist; they can be mapped in contemporary war poetry as much as in the expansive sweeps of landscape in Kollywood films. I see the pull of tinai in the way Tamils grow familiar vegetables even in diaspora––even when they can purchase them quite easily at the supermarket these days. Many Tamil homes have a கருவேப்பிலை / karuveppilai / curry leaf plant, with one family member designated to its pruning and fertilizing, caring for it the way some would care for a recalcitrant child. The leaves taste better than anything you can get at the store, they will say. They keep it indoors in a sunny spot, away from draughts during the winter, and bring it out to bask in the summer heat. The caretaker will usually have a story of how they came across the plant, and how long it has survived with them. Its survival is a point of pride, a cultural touchstone, a sign that home persists in them. They, too, unfurl in the summer, like the karuveppilai plant, stretching out into the sun, warming their winter-shrivelled skin, feeling more at home. Is this how tinai persists in us in diaspora? And does that hold any meaning? As the natural world becomes increasingly irrelevant, does it matter how one speaks of a tree? How does land, once understood as home, speak out in a time and place when greed grasps at distant planets?
Tinai brings the natural world into my practice not merely as a backdrop, but as a system of being, an ontology that connects human and land in an array of relations. I see those relations made precarious by colonialism and war in the prolonged close reading that a translation casts me into with a text. My presence as a refugee-settler in Indigenous territories affects my practice, as I translate one landscape while inhabiting another. My entry into Canada was marked by absences and erasures as the land and its first inhabitants were translated for me through the culture of terra nullius. It was an erasure of Indigenous place names, flora, and fauna and, I would add, the erasure of language, meanings, and ways of being. Nowhere is it clearer: “language is a map, not a tracing.”iiiDeleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 77. Don Mee Choi extrapolates from Deleuze and Guattari: “translation is a map, a mode that can trigger endless crossings from one party to another, ‘neither of whom has seen.’”ivChoi, Translation is a Mode, 3 I carry the vethalam on my back as I cross from one language to another, as I try to bring across a meaning that is tied to one land into another. I certainly feel at times that my head will explode if I don’t find the right words. And in translating literature rising out of war, I must remind myself there are times when I must remain silent so the author may speak. The vethalam challenges me to resist an extractive translation of land, nudging me instead into a mode arising from a lived terrain––a meaningful psychic relationship with the land.
- Sivathamby, "Early South Indian Society."
- Thamizhakam is a geographical designation for lands where Tamil was spoken prior to imperial geopolitical constructs of nation. For an exploration of the Tamil region in historical perspective see Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson. "Introduction" in Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, eds. Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2008), 2-10.
- Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 77.
- Choi, Translation is a Mode, 3