Everything I Don’t Know How to Say / sve što ne znam kako da kažem

By | 15 September 2022

When I come again, I am unrooted. The decision to move to Bosnia was not one I thought through, which is like me in all respects. To delay and delay and act suddenly, decisively, unthinkingly. I leave my mother reeling, my sister perplexed. I leave my dad – who has nurtured me into everything I love about myself – stoic in the face of what might be abandonment. I do not want to leave anyone. I want to stop leaving anyone. This, of course, is the trouble. To be in diaspora you must split yourself in two, and if you cannot do that, you must turn your body into the hyphen, stretch yourself thin between homes and hope that your arms are wide enough, strong enough, to hold everything and all of the distance between.

When I come again, I am surprised by how much I understand. I am not sure if it was like this before, if I had felt this somewhere, distantly perhaps. Now it hits me in the chest, now I feel it in my body, a trace left beneath the skin, suddenly clear without the pressure of my newness. A recent study found this trace to be written into the brain: Chinese children adopted as infants into French-speaking Canadian families respond to tonal sounds common in Chinese languages, even as the words those tones might make up were out of reach, their brains lighting up like the brains of native speakers. The study did not investigate what this did to the hairs on their arms, how it affected the tightness in their chests.

What I was, I’ve since learned, is a ‘passive speaker’ or a ‘receptive bilingual’, someone who can understand the language to a middling standard but who cannot speak it. A ghost in the language, able to see the living world but unable to interact with it. But my father is patient. He built a house with his bare hands and now we will build me a language. Every day he tells me something new, points to the sun and names it, asks I kad nema sunca? And grins when I can reply ima mjesec, ima svezde. I write poetry from this too, and in this way make it tangible. The words, yes, but also the moment: a father teaching his child to call the world.

I am not doing this because Bosnian allows me access to a closer truth, or a different field of imaginative options, something realer than English can offer. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can only go so far, and I cannot believe that language can so fully determine how we think in the world, nor so utterly constrain us to its structures so as to leave us without time, without blue. What language might do is a subtle orientation, a kind of heightened awareness. Famously, there are a number of Aboriginal languages, Guugu Yimithirr and Kuuk Thaayorre for example, which use cardinal, rather than egocentric, directions, and whose speakers carry with them an innate knowledge of where they stand in relation to the rise and fall of the sun. Naturally, this does not mean that they cannot understand the concept of left and right.

Similarly, English might not have a word for sevdah or rahatluk, but I can explain what these words mean and no one has yet been unable to comprehend what state they refer to. We have all felt the pain of longing, and the pleasure in it. We have all sat in in contentment with friends, savouring simple pleasures. This is perhaps why there are so many ‘X incredible words with no English translation’ lists: there is pleasure is knowing that there is a word for something you have felt, a sense of human community. This works on the level of subtle (re)orientation too: rahatluk is not time wasted, sevdah is not a failure of emotions, nor a penchant for drama, nor masochism.

(A Bosnian mjesec is no more moon than its English equivalent, but it brings me closer.)

Months pass in this way and soon, sooner than I expected, I have a hoard of words which I guard jealously, polishing them over long drives until my tongue grows numb against their edges. I repeat the hard ones over and over: iznenađena, ljuljačka, vrhnje and my cousins laugh from the backseat, demanding hajde, još jedan put or asking me to please remind them how to say a word they know I’ll get wrong (žmigavac being a favourite, a word I had to double check to write it). It is a gentle teasing and I do not feel ashamed.

Later, when my language is better, conversations expand. I no longer need a translator and this allows my family and I to speak in the intimacy of the first person. We talk of the war and my father shows me where the snipers were, where we took shelter when the time came for it, points to the hills and tells me who held them. My cousins tell me how one uncle was killed, how another was wounded and carried for three days over the bare hills surrounding Mostar, how people fled to our home from the south and sheltered there – family, yes, and occasionally a prisoner of war, somehow gotten loose.

We talk about the time I’ve been gone but there is no way to understand this absence and we do not try. When I first came to Bosnia my father answered every phone call with moja čerka je došla, my daughter has come, and this is what we return to: I am here and that is enough.

I do not stay. There is too much of me outside of Bosnia, twenty-five years’ worth. A hyphen returned to its point of departure becomes a full stop.

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