Conversation with Dina Ramadan
Anatomies of Languages Lost and Found
In her collection of essays and stories, The Autobiography of a Language (2022), Mirene Arsanios both yearns for the comfort of a mother-tongue and rejects the nationalistic confines of monolingualism. In doing so she develops some of the themes previously explored in Notes on Mother Tongues (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020) and A City Outside the Sentence (2015), a chapbook produced by Ashkal Alwan. Raised in a number of languages, the New York-based Lebanese writer and founding editor of the Arabic/English literary magazine Makhzin floats through the spaces between them in search of an ever-elusive narrative. Spanning significant personal and political changes for Arsanios, The Autobiography of a Language is an exploration of the possibilities and limitations of the narrative form, the frailty of the human body, the pain of dislocation and the trauma of lost inheritance. Through experimentation with style and form, language is dissected, its innards turned inside out, its distortions and contradictions laid bare, messy, and tangled.
Dina Ramadan: Perhaps we can begin by talking about the time frame of this book. These essays and stories come from very different moments, personally and politically, locally and globally.
Mirene Arsanios: Yes, thanks for noticing the temporal arc of the book, which is very heterogeneous! In 2019, I assembled disparate writings into a manuscript. Some of these stories, such as “Awer” (2015), date back to my MFA years at Bard College. Others were prompted by a commission or an invitation (“E autobiography di un idioma” and “Motherless Tongues” were both commissioned by e-flux, for example). “The Good Daughter” and “Last Days of Sleep” were added once the manuscript was already completed. Both of these date to 2019, a year of life-changing convergences—the death of my father and birth of my son. From 2015 to 2020 the world changed multiple times; in 2016 I moved to New York from Beirut; in 2019, the financial system collapsed in Lebanon, followed by the port explosion a year later. These were (and still are) years of exodus, departure, tremendous loss, both in Lebanon and the region at large. The Autobiography is an attempt to put into language, even if tentatively, these personal and historical conjunctures. It loosely chronicles the last few years via specific events as they relate to my experience—living in New York in a gentrified neighbourhood, experiencing the privatized medical system in Lebanon during my father’s illness, reflecting on the loss of inheritance and mother tongues, etc.