Arnolfini

Episode 3 | Still I Rise: Female Writers, Emotional Stories and Mother Tongues

Our current Writer in Residence is freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam. Melissa writes for many publications such as The Public Art Review, Transfuge Magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Skin Deep, The Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7, CIRCA Art Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement and Public Pressure. Below, Melissa shares the third episode of her writing on Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender Resistance – Act III. 

 

In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell reflected on his great concern with truth and language. A relevant worry for our time… All his work was more concerned with the truth of his time and political relevance than by style, by the enchantment provoked by the use of rare adjective… My main inspirations, from the days when I was studying literature at La Sorbonne in Paris, were writers like Samuel Beckett, Frantz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera, leaning on the side of deep meaning and unforgettable stories.

Yet, not everyone agrees. Earlier last year in London, a woman talked to me about her friend’s writing as an art, to the point that the content didn’t really matter… It is all about the form, she meant. She was talking about a female writer, so what her statement reflected to me is how many people still expect women to write “pretty things”, while men are in charge of serious ideas…

Although I absolutely love writing and especially poetry, believe it is a high art, to me the power of writing is first and foremost in the message, and the more creative the writing, the better. So, of course, it saddens me that such prejudices came from the lips of another woman, but let’s remind people that some of the most powerful voices in the past hundred years of literature were actually women.

Women’s Words and Resistance

‘Still I Rise’ was an exhibition filled with such powerful words. Words and language are actually at the core of this exhibition, much more than in typical display of visual art.

It did so through mentions of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, newspapers in Arabic and Persian, zines and journals like the Anti-Sexist Men’s Achilles Heel, etc. but also through protest banners, recorded voices of ordinary female citizens, spells, crying calls, poems, like the one by Xenobia Bailey, who reimagined how African people must have lived the experience of slave abduction, of their fellows being taken away to the Americas…

And by showing how these words empowered women, it proved that in no way women’s writing is only decorative. It may be more emotional, but that is surely a balance that the literary world has always needed. It doesn’t mean that women’s writing is in any way by nature less powerful or less political.

In the voices of female writers I always found meaning and strength…

In my late teens, I found that strength in the words of French novelist Marguerite Duras or Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva; a few years later in books by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Martha Gellhorn, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…

One particular writer could be highlighted, a woman I had tried to write a book about: Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine could have been featured in ‘Still I Rise’ indeed. Playwright and writer born in 1930 in Chicago, she became the first African-American female author to see her play performed on Broadway, at only 29 years old. A Raisin in the Sun talked about the lives of African Americans under racial segregation in her hometown. Friend with James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., she was a key actor in the American civil rights movement, often forgotten. While Lorraine Hansberry sadly passed away at 34 in 1965, she had by then inspired Nina Simone to write the song ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’.

Language is what allows us to relate…

And in our current world, the English language can be a unifying force across oceans and continents. It used to be French in the 18th century, it might be Mandarin or Spanish in the next 50 years, but for now, it remains English largely. Yet English in itself is not a fixed tongue, it’s a living organism, spoken differently in Bristol, Chicago, Kingston, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Melbourne or New Delhi.

Women’s words and Mother Tongues

For me, English very early on became a language of vast knowledge and a mean to reach out to more people. As a teenager already, for a specific reason: it became my emotional language in the unemotional world I was stuck in at that stage. The one I used to connect with people’s feelings, especially through poetry, music and lyrics. Later on, when I was based in Florida, England and of course Kenya, where most people don’t speak or read French, my first language, this experience grew immensely.

Yet, only recently did I come to fully understand why it was easier for me to express complicated inner feelings in English: because though I learn French as a baby, with my mother, it was not my “mother’s tongue”. It wasn’t hers… Hers was a language in her native region in North Africa, most often than not forbidden in schools, by the French colonial regime and later by the new pro-Arabic nationalistic government. As the first Paris-born in the family, my parents decided it was better for me to only speak a mainstream, European language. So all the songs and rhymes my mother learned in her childhood, I hardly ever heard and never understood them.

The sad part in this is that my mother’s mother was a storyteller… She didn’t know how to read or write in any of the three languages she used daily, but she was full of stories. Yet, I, the literate child who was taught French, German, English, Latin and a bit of ancient Greek, couldn’t understand her. My mother once tried to translate a few of her old, magical tales for me, when I was a child, one of the rare times I visited their country. But I only remember the feeling of these tales, not the content.

That’s the main reason why, I think, at some point I decided to switch my emotional mind from French to English, the language of my favourite musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, singers… And from then on, it became a language of my own, as my family couldn’t understand it. It was a first act of rebellion in a way, as a teenager, against my parents, but maybe also against the old colonial rule, which took our dialect away from me, claiming it wasn’t worth speaking in imperial capitals.

Most people in Europe in the 1990s dismissed these local tales in dialects as childish, as useless oral babbles. Nowadays, these are collected by anthropologists and publishers… Hopefully these voices won’t be entirely lost, like the ones of Native American women, Welsh or Armenian tales, Irish folksongs in Gaelic. Luckily those tales and languages are now recognised and taught again. Maybe some day, my grandmother’s tongue will in the same way thrive again.

One of the reasons I hope it will is that “words matter”. This motto of mine is actually reminded to all of us in the ‘Magic’ exhibition currently on display at the Bristol Museum, on Queen’s Road, dealing with the relations of spirituality, shamanism and science across centuries and continents. In the fields of history of communities, genders, identities and resistance, words matter more than ever. And it’s not enough to translate them, it’s better to feel them, and languages can help in that tremendously…

In my case, and for many writers, sometimes expressing ourselves in the tongue of another is a curse, like it was for so many Africans and Indigenous people. But some other times it can also become a blessing. Like it was for Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett or Joseph Conrad before them… So I hope it will keep on being for me.

Melissa Chemam

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