Simic: "Rubbing against so many strangers in so many places and aping their ways to pass for a native has made you incomprehensible even to yourself."Some people emigrate to another country and preserve, on purpose, a strong sense of their original culture, language, and heritage. They irrigate in their soul "Some corner of a foreign field that is forever England," as Rupert Brooke would have it. But Simic and I, and many others, are more interested in "passing for a native" so that we can be better understood by the people we're now spending time with. I remember when I used to sell produce at the community garden in South Berkeley (basically Oakland ghetto), and most of the patrons were elderly Black people, originally from the South, who lived at a nearby senior center. If I'd told them how delicious the tomaahtoes were this week, they would have had no clue what I was talking about! Elsewhere in The Monster Loves his Labyrinth, Simic mentions that he no longer speaks Serbian, his native language, fluently. My favorite professor at Oxford, a phenomenal Classical linguist and philologist, was Italian, and had both an Italian accent and a weak "r" when she spoke English. But when she spoke Italian, she had an English accent in her Italian, having lived in the UK for decades--and that despite her huge linguistic capabilities. My own mother has an English accent when she speaks her native Hebrew nowadays, and she often comments on how much the language has changed in the decades she's been living abroad--new vocabulary, new slang and idioms.
On the other hand, my mother is immeasurably bothered by the fact that my own accent has changed so much in the eleven years I've lived in the US. It's not just accent--I also use American vocabulary and idioms. When I was first in the US, every time I spoke to my parents on the phone for the first several months, my dad would exclaim how wonderful it was that I didn't have an American accent. He stopped saying that years ago, and sometimes when I visit my parents, my mum says when I first arrive, "Do you think you could speak English while you're here, please?" The fact is, I can't--I don't understand British slang anymore--there are new words and phrases every time I go! My accent will migrate back in that direction, but my dad will still be echoing various oddities of my pronunciation whenever I open my mouth.
Why am I going on about this? Because, hypocritical as my mum's position might seem, she once explained the thought behind it in telling fashion. I was describing two of my professors at Stanford, both of them British women who were married to Americans and had lived in the US for 30 years, one of them with an accent almost indistinguishable from an American accent, the other sounding like she'd never left the UK--both of them linguists also. My mum's comment was that the latter woman had maintained a sense of her own identity, which was why she could still talk as she'd grown up talking. My mother thinks I've let go of my own sense of identity and allowed this other idiom to seep into my soul.
She thinks I'm incomprehensible to myself, as Simic would say. And it's true--Simic no longer speaks Serbian fluently; I don't understand British English slang from the past decade and sound "American" to British people. But neither Simic nor I ever would pass for an American in the US!
And this permanent strangeness persists through both directions in time for both of us--Simic was born in Serbia right before WW II, at a time when national boundaries were in such flux, in a place where ethnicities meld together but often don't achieve any stable fusion. I don't look English at all, and all through my growing up years, whenever I met a new person, early on in our acquaintance I'd be asked "Where are you from?" In Israel, I'd get asked the same question, because of my accented Hebrew. Here in the US, even as much as my accent apes the native tone, my melodious British intonation always gives the game away, although no one ever guesses I'm British anymore. "Are you Irish? South African?" (I've even gotten "Indian" when I've been tanned) "Oh--half Israeli--that must be what I'm hearing!"
And I get to the heart of what I want to talk about just as I run out of time. It's not just about "aping the natives and trying to fit in" in a literal country. I mentioned yesterday my cautious and parlous reintegration with "the mainstream." Whatever country I've been in, I feel like I've never been a native of "the mainstream." I'm not fluent in polite social conversation. I don't know how to dress. Sometimes I don't know how to behave appropriately. The country of poetry-writing has a different terrain, and when I return from that with my clothes wet, for a dinner with friends, my thoughts are disjointed. From what pole am I looking at the world? For months, it might be one, or the other, but always comes a day when the world's countenance appears to change diametrically, purely because my own brain chemistry has done a backflip.
I'm deeply enmeshed in an essay all about this theme of multiple parallel worlds and the sojourns between them, and how, from life to death to "break on through to the other side," our language and culture are obsessed with these crossings. So now I'm out of time, and I'd better go write up Simic and work some more on that essay too!
Are you a native of your landscape, or a stranger and a sojourner like Simic and me?