Comfortable in her mother tongue, Turkish, Selin Genc wasn’t prepared for how English would creep into her dreams, thoughts and conversations when moving to Scotland. Here, she talks navigating two languages, two worlds and enjoying the magical mixing of both.
Speaking Turkish, my mother tongue, used to be as simple as breathing. It churned and fermented, nourished by live culture, and had a fluidity I took for granted. Idioms and expressions stuck on and dropped off of me like pollens. Phrases were gooey and malleable in my hands. Istanbul is a melting-pot where localities from across Turkey and beyond meet. So how I spoke, my mannerisms and intonations, stood out and were indicative of a certain circle and a certain class. Nonetheless I felt deeply situated, rooted in where I lived, the people I interacted with.
My parents always spoke of my future as if it was scheduled to take place elsewhere; I was conditioned to seek an expat life. When I imagined myself in a work environment, or with a partner-to-be and children-to-have, I assumed that Turkish would not be my main means of communication. This didn’t bother me, as the mother tongue seemed something so inherent to one’s being. I assumed that even if not regularly spoken, my emotional essence, a sort of spiritual DNA, was coded in Turkish. So when I moved to Scotland four years ago for an undergraduate degree, I was not prepared for how unsettled my sense of native tongue was about to become.
English permeated into the depths of my consciousness, seeping into the texture of my intimate thoughts and inner monologues. I even started dreaming in a hybrid vocabulary, as reported to me by those who have witnessed my quite verbose manner of sleep. New neurological pathways branched out stemming from the seeds of both languages, and at times forests of English dominated saplings of Turkish. Learning highly theoretical concepts in university in its lingo, it became the primary form in which many topics had a tangible and coherent meaning. Sharing with those back home newly acquired thoughts and knowledge on various subjects proved to be a frustrating task, as I noticed that I had not thought of such topics in Turkish yet. I was increasingly inhabiting an anglophone world, and becoming inhabited by an English discourse.
Sometimes I feel more competent in one language than the other. Other times both will seem half- formed, my English patchy and my Turkish blunt-edged. I then wonder if I have any linguistic abilities at all, when my command and delivery appear so static and brittle instead of flexible and bouncy. When language feels more like a barrier rather than a bridge, I reminisce on evenings of my childhood when my grandmother told me folktales from her own days of juvenility. Her oral performance was unfaltering as she channeled deities of the art of storytelling. The confidence with which she dramatised them inspires me as I am reminded that articulation can be such a peculiar thing.
They were often surreal and even non-sensical narratives. But their internal logic was warranted through the act of diligent repetition. Sometimes a word would roll in that had no meaning outside the magical dimensions of the story realm. I am unsure if this vocabulary was of her own invention, or if they had been of the vernacular of countryfolk. These stories were playful and unexpected, but also dependable, always the same beads of words following one another. She spoke them like prayers, never missing a beat. Now, tired by old age, she recites them only if pressed, and it is apparent how much of an effort it is to conjure the words.
The memories I hold of these oral performances, in their playfulness and rich tradition, remind me of what resources language offers. Language connects worlds, spatially and geographically. My grandmother’s stories present a link into the depths of Anatolia and to a now seemingly unreachable family history. It was her father who told her these stories over the span of many evenings, building up suspense like in the Arabian Nights. Both of her parents were killed in a family feud before she had reached adolescence and I believe that her ability to recount these tales many years later to her grandchildren is a way in which she held onto the memory of her parents, working through ongoing grief. Stories, and more generally language, present tools for holding on, reaching out, and being present with what is gone and what is to come.
I can’t really say that my grandmother’s stories were particularly moralising. If anything they had a few mild obscenities, even a swear word here and there. Folklore, I believe, is transmission of knowledge that has more genuine ambitions than passing on the status quo. Rather, it holds a diverse range of quaint wisdoms, extracted from marginalised realities of life. Furthermore, stories mean to entertain. Such wisdom and charm is also transmitted through the mother, grandmother, great grandmother tongue. I like to imagine this heirloom as a compass, a tool that gives a sense of direction but doesn’t dictate a destination. Make use of it, whenever needed, in your own journey.
After all language can’t be preserved in amber. It is a living and promiscuous being. My grandmother told her own version of these stories. Like a stone passed from hand to hand, each encounter leaves an imprint, collectively shaping and smoothing its form. When I feel tongue-tied and unconfident with words, I remind myself that not only am I an embodied instantiation of a shared heritage, but also I am an inventor, an innovator in my own right. In my situated use of the language, speaking Turkish away from home and speaking English as an expat, my way of using both languages is unique to me. And so is everyone else’s way with words. Through this refreshed understanding of what language is, my recently severed roots are growing again. Though at times articulation feels stalled or awkward, this is because language is a membranous and lively thing, with which we can also utter spells and cast magic. The beauty of it all is that the world is an infinitely polyphonous and heteroglot place. To quote Aimé Césaire, a Martiniquais author and poet who does many odd and amazing things with words: ‘It takes all kinds to make a world’.
About Selin Genc
Based in Edinburgh and Istanbul, Selin Genc is an art history student entering the final year of her BA in the University of Edinburgh. She also has her own art practice, in which she employs multimedia techniques informed by a feminist surrealist trajectory. Selin aspires to continue her studies in the area of Social Anthropology. Inspired by the meeting point of the magical and the mundane, the domestic and the esoteric, she is drawn by the alternative histories of ordinary things. Her online portfolio can be found here: https://selingenc-art.wixsite.com/portfolio. She also runs a history of art blog on instagram @ladyhamiltonasbacchante
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes
Submissions are now open for this series. See our Submissions & Contact page for full details.
Feature image above is by Anton Darius on Unsplash.