In Rojbin Arjen Yigit’s powerful poem, ‘Daykêmîn (Mother)’, a child sits to dinner savouring her mother’s stories of when she first arrived in Britain and had to navigate many cultural and linguistic barriers.
My family are from Northern Kurdistan, and the variety of languages we speak have failed to create that deep immersion in culture and knowledge that is promised. I speak Kurdish, Turkish and English, but so often I am asked, ‘Isn’t Turkish the same as Kurdish?’ It’s funny: one would never say that being British is essentially the same as being German, and yet people react as if I’m cheating them by saying I’m not Turkish, and that I do know three languages not two. When it comes to ethnic ‘minorities’, we’re all lumped together.
When my mother moved from her small Kurdish village to Kayseri, a much larger city in Turkey. Instead of being something to celebrate, her knowledge of Kurdish became a great burden to her. In 2002 she sought political asylum in England, hoping for a ‘better life’ in the West, but again was faced with the same devastating discrimination as in Turkey. Stories of the hardships faced when coming to a ‘better’ country are told across dinner tables by parents to fresh-faced children, told so that you remember their suffering for your comfort; told so that you are never embarrassed by their broken English, but angry that they will always be suspended between borders and trapped between different languages.
It was at the dinner table when you
Whilst eating fasulye
Whilst biting the meat off the bones
Starving for more snippets of stories
About the clinic in 2003
About how you really thought about it
Because you were new to this England
This cold country
With its unsmiling British lips
Probably because the sun never rises here
You said the doctor said ‘please reconsider’
And you heard it from the mouth of the
Not even in the tongue of your mothers
But that twisted language you had to learn
Made to sing the national anthem
Kurdish diluted to Turkish
Where you had no right to be
Now in this England
The echo of the doctor
In that carbolic room
Woke you up—
A little life sprouting
Suddenly the fullness of your belly
Was enough for you
And you told me how you said to the translator woman
Who told the doctor
About Rojbin Arjen Yigit
Born and raised in North London, Rojbin Arjen Yigit is a 17-year-old aspiring medical student. She speaks Turkish, Kurdish and English.
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