how to decentre the imperial "I" — possibly with a "P" for politics...
English with a capital "E" is an imperial language, an infrastructure of invasion and domination. As Roy Miki says, it is the language of government, power, law, fear and intimidation. Those of us who are not narrated by the imperial "I" not centred in the white, male(volent), homophobic, bourgeouis assumptions of the Anglosaxon world, live ambivalently in some sort of Eng-lush. I wouldn't say we're swooning lushes, blissfully intoxicated, but rather incoherently drunk, slurring sharp cornered words, tripping over packed up participles—all that verbage, with so many tenses. A tense tongue is needed: at-tention. Elsewise, as Fred Wah says, words like the 'soup' slip to 'sloupl and we fall from our momentary flight in the language of the Law and Nation into humiliating silliness. But do we really want to tense our tongues, attempt to situate ourselves in what Betsy Warland calls, "the land of angles": Angleterre, the land-uage of terror?
Perhaps the strategy should not be to tense the tongue but to build the ambivalences, slippages, to inhabit english with transgressive activities, to 'fake it' a la Fred Wah, to 'perform' from a position of 'interlanguage' as Jam Ismail demonstrated at Inglish: Writing with an Accent. Inglish was a series of readings and talk sessions that took place at the Western Front in Vancouver, November 20 - 21, 1992 organized by Roy Miki. It was to be a meeting ground for "immigrant and Canadian-born writers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds" 1Ad for Inglish: Writing with an Accent in Front, Nov/Dec 1992, 12 to speak about issues that concerned them as "..writers who have experienced denial, discrimination, and marginalization within Canadian society...and [who] have grown up with a troubled and problematic relationship to the English language..."2ibid
Many of the writers directly addressed this relationship. Aruna Srivastava and Betsy Warland presented the inability of English as an academic discourse/discipline and as god's word/truth to address what Julia Watson calls the "unspeakables"3Julia Watson, Unspeakable Differences: The Politics of Gender in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women's Autobiography, De/Colonizing the Subject, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.: the assumed whiteness and heterosexuality in our language with its implicit racism and child abuse. In particular, Aruna Srivastava presented how the English as a discipline narrates her on the one hand, as a professor in a position of neutrality and decorum within the academic institution; and on the other, how it painfully silences and isolates her as a South Asian woman and as someone with unbearable past experiences. Ayanna Blackand Marie Annharte Baker spoke from culturally and historically grounded communities struggling against political violence. Pointedly, as well as with wit, they explained how this positioned them against what Baker calls Canada's "settler lit" alias "apartheid lit/a part/a part hate literature." But both writers also made it clear that they were not just stuck in a position of defence. As members of their particular communities, they also participate in the continual development of their people's languages and literary forms. Likewise, Ashok Mathur and Jam Ismail discussed their innovative approaches to writing and publishing in terms of generating new forms that slide over the frames locking english as logic, as located in the book.
This seemed like a promising day, but somehow it dissipated into a strange silence. While it was apparent that many discussions were many, despite the fact that they spoke with weight and complexity. Was this because we didn't know how to address the "unspeakables" they presented? Perhaps it was the difficulty of speaking out when the gathering's configuration of power was not explicit—or perhaps too explicit. Was it because the poetic word was too mesmerizing?
Our difficulty in realizing the complexities, problems, and...'elegances' presented by the writers was due to our inability as a group to accept the brute fact of power differentials: the mean retching side of reality.
Or had the stranglehold of academia, the one that Aruna Srivastava named, somehow managed to creep into the Western Front?
Informal discussions during and after the conference seemed, indeed, to point to the underlying layer/lair of academia as the problem. Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk and Smaro Kamboureli, each of them established academics, seemed oblivious to the particular way in which English narrated them within the dominating discourses. For example, Kroetsch constructed his autobiography around a literary investigation/pursuit of a woman, apparently a "brilliant" writer, who, he explains to us, mysteriously disappears... after which he enters her home and continues to search through/ pillage her private writings. Was he aware of the latent misogyny/ voyeurism in operation? Aritha van Herk and Smaro Kamboureli dominated the open discussion, struggling to come to terms with the fact that some of us refused to accept the underlying implications of their statements: that the oppression of ethnics is parallel to the systematic violence imposed by racism, homophobia, genocide and sexual abuse in Canada. It was an unpleasant affirmation of Aruna Srivastava's struggle within and against the capital "E" of English.
Inglish offered a much needed forum to discuss the various anti-hegemonic writing strategies being developed by innovative writers along our cultural front. Our difficulty in realizing the complexities, problems, and to borrow Jam Ismail's terminology, the "elegances" presented by the writers, was due to our inability as a group to accept the brute fact of power differentials: the mean, retching side of reality. Unless we recognize that this work is more than an aesthetic movement, that it is a political project, our discussions will continue to dissipate into silence. No doubt it is clear that the "E" of English is quite firmly enthroned — but if we try to, as Roy Miki said, keep "ing-/ng" maybe we can make it totter, then tip then, do you think—fall? The "I" of Inglish for me is about a critical self-reflective politics of Empowerment with a capital "E". It is about reducing and decentralizing the "I" of institution to small mobile and multiple i-'s located in histories, economies, self-determinations... about finding ways to break up and build across.
Acknowledging myself as a guest writer I want to thank Rungh for asking me to contribute to this edition.
Thanks to Shafraz Jetha and for critical feedback.
Appreciation and acknowledgement of discussions with Shafraz Jetha, Scott McFarlane, Charmaine Perkins, Ameen Merchant Wendy Plain, Roy Miki and Jerry Zaslove.
- Ad for Inglish: Writing with an Accent in Front, Nov/Dec 1992, 12.
- Julia Watson, Unspeakable Differences: The Politics of Gender in Lesbian and Heterosexual Women's Autobiography, De/Colonizing the Subject, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.