Mirene Arsanios


Many Englishes

Can I say this?” I would ask my American partner every time (everytime) I doubted the use of a preposition or felt like I was misusing an adverb, as if playing with toys that weren’t mine. I’d shatter the words to (into) pieces, break sentences halfway, distort names I’d overheard. Were we at the station or in the station? Was I coming (going) into the apartment or in the apartment? My partner’s answers felt like momentary forays into (to) the land of the grammatically rich, a temporary visit I’d pay to proper English before being thrown back out to where I came from—a place impossible to map onto (into) a single nation, language, or sentence.

Quando yo ero chiquitita, yo preguntaba, mama, yo que sere—my mom would sing to put me to sleep. Although Spanish is my mother-tongue (mother tongue), it isn’t my first language. At home, my Venezuelan mother and my Lebanese father settled for French—Lebanon’s colonial language–as the family’s lingua franca. Untethered to a single country, I grew up “abroad”—an outside to an inside I had no memories of (from). Raised in a privileged cosmopolitanism of sorts, I went to French schools and American colleges and like millions of others, I ended (up) in English—“the language of the future,” my mother would call it. English is malleable, supple (redundant), shape-shifting like capital.

There are many reasons writers wind up in a language that isn’t their own; many scenarios in which the transmission of a mother tongue is compromised by colonial and imperial histories. Etel Adnan is an Arab author writing in American. North African writers Abdelkebir Khatibi, Assia Djebar, and Kateb Yacine, all wrote in French. As part of colonial legacies, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen massive movements of global migration (specify) and displacement due to war and economic hardships (specify). Across these transnational histories, languages are abandoned, taken up, and bastardized. The nation-state and its enforcement of a single language spoken within (often) (arbitrary) borders unify a (“same”) people separated from others (“foreigners”). But before the creation of the modern nation-state, and still today, different languages and dialects were (are) spoken on (in) a shared territory (examples).

I am not alone in English, no longer (only) a foreigner (stranger). Many contemporary writers write in languages that aren’t native to them; many have renounced their mother tongue and abandoned their mothers. Even if you’re a monolingual writer–someone who speaks and dreams in a single language–there will always be another language to remind you of an otherness you aren’t reckoning with: your own.