When I leave, moving to Glasgow for a PhD but also for a sense of purpose, my cousin gives me the poetry collection and I try to read it on the plane, still brimming with new words and easy answers. The fact that I cannot is an ugly shock. I had been living in Bosnia, living in Bosnian, for half a year, I’d published poems scattershot with Bosnian words and phrases and yet the words in this collection mean almost nothing to me; they might as well be written in Cyrillic rather than Gaj’s Latin alphabet. I’m furious at myself, my lack of dedication and rigour, my hubris. I hadn’t expected to have mastered the language, but neither had I thought I could feel so new in it again. It embarrasses me, casts my ignorance into a relief I did not expect.
Worse, it shakes the connection I thought I had rebuilt. I feel suddenly further from Bosnia than I had before I’d gone back, now acutely – painfully – aware of the distance that twenty years necessitates. When I arrive in my new home, the collection is slipped into my bookshelf and remains unopened for two years and I do not spend the time between my moving and my next trip to Bosnia – for three months over the following summer – studying the language. Instead I listen to it slip away again every time my father calls and, without the aid of hands and facial expressions and objects turned into speaking aids, our conversation falters short. Quickly, we stop calling.
This does not stop me writing poetry with Bosnian in it, poetry being a forgiving medium which allows for my bad grammar and poor vocabulary, and the gaps left by all the things I cannot say. This is neither an expression of truth about, nor aspiration for, myself; or at least, not exactly. How could it be, if I can’t say anything about myself in Bosnian that I couldn’t say better in English? Yet I persist, compulsively, like picking a scab or worrying at my gums: exploratory, a feeling out of the edges. Perhaps what this might express best is the disconnect between me and the language, between me and my place of birth, and my itch to probe the depth of this divide. This is something I feel more strongly when, later, I read multilingual writing, poetry mostly, devouring Safia Elhillo’s The January Children and Shu-Ling Chua’s Echoes, reading Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’ over and over.
What captures me, of course, is the fact that these writers are dealing in a similar disconnect – to Arabic, Cantonese, Bundjalung – as I am. Selfishly, I find this comforting, even as I read in their works the same grappling, the same reaching that I felt in Bosnia when I first arrived, that I felt when speaking to my father after I left. Yet there is in their work, too, a kind of generosity, one that I feel these writers extend to themselves in their use of their languages, but which, in the reading, feels also like a generosity extended to them by language.
Even as these writers are learning, on the page, the phonemes, syllables and characters of their tongues, it does not feel like a pursuit so much as an unfolding. In their works, I can sit more comfortably in my incomprehension, and savour the gaps in my understanding which are sometimes also gaps in the writer’s understanding, but which contain so precisely the history and texture of their distances, and their striving for something nearer. It is not just languages that we are trying to bring into proximity, but through language, those parts of ourselves made distant by the same rent that took our words: by years and kilometres and deaths, by violences and all that had to be done to survive them.
This is no great revelation but it feels like one.