Yen Ooi’s poem, ‘Mother Tongue’, is a bold and resolute response to those who project ideas onto a person’s skin and fail to see the individual for who they are, in all their cultural, linguistic and ethnic multiplicity.
can you translate?
I speak seven tongues
but I’m not schooled in that which matters
We are all composites of the previous lie.
Do you know?
My father’s birthland
is different from mine, and mine
is different from my daughter’s.
What do you say? You, who do not know me.
We are not all the same.
I learnt a new language recently.
With all the etchings— three sets of alphabets!
the sayings in layers
the stubborn readings.
I love its complexity,
how naturally we bonded.
I want to be proud of it
without thinking about the words you insist are mine—
mine, only for my skin
yellow, the colour of guilt.
my face, inherited from ancestors
who do not know me, but live in
at my accent, grown from my spirit
that learned to love
and be loved.
history that tells of how we learn, adapt
and change our culture,
I fight to own a language that defies to be mine
while the language that rolls off my tongue in sing-song
escapes my memory—its glyphs an illusion of meanings.
Like a persistent déjà vu
I try again and again to learn the language
that is branded on my skin
but means nothing to me.
I fight to find a solution to assimilate, disassociate.
I fight to find the cause so I may understand.
I fight so my daughter won’t need to.
Do you see?
I fight for all the parts of me
a contrast of orange and blue in myriad shapes.
I dream of a rainbow in daylight
not one hidden in the night.
Do you see?
About Yen Ooi
Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Her latest project, Road to Guangdong is a narrative-style driving game that highlights the Chinese culture through story puzzles that is weaved into family interactions. Yen is also author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer at Westminster University’s MA Creative Writing course, and a mentor in marketing and publishing. Follow Yen on instagram @yenooi and on Twitter @yenooi, and read her blog here.
This poem was commissioned for Life in Languages, a 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, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages