Mother Tongue

Hands of Language reviewed
By Mehjabeen Datoo
 
Hands for Language - Book Cover

Hands for Language
By Uma Menon
68 pp. Mawenzi House Publishers

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         …why
would i love this writing      if it
cost me      my people      my
blood my songs      my memories
my words     in another language

Full of images of language trapped, of tongues and mouths that both/either speak madly and are unable to speak stopped by clenched fists, of mothers and grandmothers who pass on and withhold language, Uma Menon’s first book of poems, Hands for Language, captures the anguish of not being able to master the beauty of one’s “mother” tongue felt by so many of us raised away from the lands which produced our parents and grandparents.

The term “mother tongue” is the first language one learns and remains one’s mother tongue as long as one continues to understand it, however, the term may also imply a second language that often displaces the original. In Menon’s poetry this displacement is felt sharply, experienced violently. As expressed in the poem, “how to become a beautiful second-language poet”, Menon’s desire to write fights through this loss of “her” language:

write a line in english / because my language is too beautiful
for the roughness /of my words / but my lovely english kisses
sandpaper with its chapped lips now / smooth /

For Menon, her “tongue is a battleground”, but the book itself is about much more. Language becomes a focal point for her larger narrative. Hands for Language tells a story of a child born/raised in America whose family immigrated from South India and dis/connection she feels to these places:

…anyone
can / tell that my heart           isn't from

here…

Menon’s book is a coming-of-age story told in verse, divided into four sections: birth, discovery, becoming, rebellion – the fourth section appropriate for Menon’s age when this book is published, fifteen. The occasional lapses in style in the endings of a handful of poems is one of the few signs that she is a still-maturing writer. Her age may also be reflected in her concern about climate and environmental damage. In one poem she describes a mongoose biting into a plastic bottle in a park in India which includes the lines:

…this land
gave me a life & I've
given it bottle caps".

Perhaps it is her youth that gives Menon the ability to write so clearly about the generation impact of immigration:

my biggest fear isn’t
knowing where I am from
     instead
it is knowing
where I am not
from

Her poems deal with familiar themes such as grappling with one’s origins and the complexity of relationships between daughters, and mothers and grandmothers. They engage common motifs such as the scents of spicy food and the application of mehndi, and allude to well-known characters from Indian history and mythology; however, they resist collapsing into nostalgia, instead they capture the confusion and rupture experienced by those who have lost one place and cannot be settled in the place to which they have come.

I read Hands for Language in one sitting, each poem flowing into the next. I forgot entirely that I was reading a book by a fifteen-year-old writer. Menon’s narrative is not only about her life, but about the lives of those who came before her whose experiences meld into her own. Each time I reread the book, I am confronted anew with the sharpness of her images that capture exactly the inexpressible humiliation of women brought to a land where they cannot use their language to speak and the choking sensation of losing a language that one never really had.

Mehjabeen Datoo is a Secondary Humanities teacher and teacher educator working in the Richmond School District in British Columbia.

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