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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Silvija Jestrovic

Playwright between Languages

Language is the writer's only homeland, they say. A writer exists through mother tongue, we keep hearing. And whenever someone tells me that a writer writes in the language of their dreams, I am struck with panic. I was brought up in my mother's tongue (Serbo-Croatian) and in my grandmother's tongue (German). As a child I remember dreaming in tongues: Serbo-Croatian, German, and occasionally the nonsense language of fairytale characters who inhabited my imagination at that time. Later, as an adult, I immigrated to Canada and multilingual dreams started again. The question is where is the homeland of a writer who inhabits this space in between languages and cultures? Is a bilingual (or multilingual) writer a stateless person by default? Does a writer who dreams in confused tongues exist at all? In other words, as a playwright who happens to live between languages and cultures, am I teetering on the brink of non-being?

Two theories attempt to explain the writer's origins. The first one posits a mono-linguistic universe as the writer's only true domain, while the second one, which conceives of every language as foreign, imagines all writing as a kind of mad polyphony. The reality of writing practice, however, seems to oscillate between these polar opposites. In the case of playwriting, which is my main focus here, the situation is even more complex. A playwright always operates between two semantic systems — the theatrical and the textual. As such, a playwright's language is never fully mono-linguistic, since it eventually involves different idioms as means of characterization and counts on the meaning generated through subtext, movements, gestures, and images that come into play through the process of staging. Furthermore, the very transfer of dramatic text into a stage performance involves translation, or a merging of two semantic systems. Since the intrinsic character of playwriting is extremely complex, my investigation of the cultural/theatrical phenomenon of the writer between languages will be limited in this paper to Canadian playwrights and, in particular, to those whose works and position could be characterized as exilic.

The Canadian cultural context proposes a self-conscious immigrant aspect, and offers a culturally rich ambiguity that, in practice, has not yet been fully explored. The criterion of the exilic position establishes itself as a mixing, oscillating, and colliding of different cultural contexts. This does not refer only to works by writers who are immigrants, but includes the work of writers whose exile is cultural rather than physical. In other words, the sense of ambiguity that might be described as exilic exists within one's own culture too. David Fennario's Ballconville, for instance, the first Canadian bilingual play, reflects cultural polarities within the context of one country, bringing together the French and English speaking working class strata of Montreal. Thomson Highway's Dry Lips, another example that involves the notion of internal exile, depicts a fictional Manitoba reserve through linguistic mixture of Ojibway, Cree and English. Nevertheless, I will leave aside for now the phenomenon of internal exile, and concentrate on works that bring about the immigrant experience in a more direct sense. Numerous Canadian works reflect this journey of writing between languages and cultures. For the purposes of my paper, I will focus on three: Betty Quan's recently produced Mother Tongue — a multilingual play set in a Chinese immigrant family;1 Nika Rylski's Just A Kommedia that confronts two generations of Ukrainian/ Canadians;2 and Guillermo Verdecchia's film Crucero/Crossroads. Based on his Governor General's Award winning play, Fronteras Americanas, Crucero/Crossroads explores the Latin American identity in exile.3 I will also share some of my own troubles and pleasures as a relatively new inhabitant of this gap between cultures and languages.

The Playwright's Culture Shock

Three years into being an immigrant playwright in Toronto, around 1998, I wanted to write a new play. I tried to avoid the theme of emigration and exile in my writing, since it seemed too obvious and predictable. At that time I had just finished reading Octavio Paz's biography of Sor Juana and was following the troubled political and cultural life of my former Yugoslavia. Sor Juana's destiny of a writer and nun in relationship with religious and political power structures of her time and place offered a rich analogy for exploring the role of artist/intellectual in dramatic political circumstances. The themes of personal courage on the one hand, political sell-out on the other, and the gray zone in between, has preoccupied artists and intellectuals of my native country from Tito to Milosevic. In a country where the audience is particularly attuned to the subversive pleasure of reading between the lines, the artistic device of historical analogy is commonly employed. I talked about Sor Juana as my eventual project to my fellow Canadian playwrights. I tried to explain my choice, stressing that I was not after a didactic biography, but after a historical figure as a sign, an analogy, a conveyor of meaning. I promised to have an eclectic approach and to use deliberate anachronisms. I even wrote Sor Juana's monologue. My Canadian colleagues remained confused, and I read the following question between their lines: “What on earth do you have to do with a Mexican writer, who wrote in baroque verse, and who, on the top of everything, was a Catholic nun?” I gave up the Sor Juana play, realizing for the first time that I had entered the gap between cultures. The idea for the play was a logical mistake — I wanted to communicate the cultural context in which I physically lived, assuming the cultural circumstances that I had left a few years ago. I learned that my assumption of cultural, political and theatrical universalities was my own border. So, I wrote a play about emigrants. What else is a writer with an accent to do? In one's native culture, words are so readily available and taken for granted, that they are neither questioned nor appreciated. Only in a new cultural context and in a foreign language is the true relationship between writer and words revealed. Language plays tricks on writers between languages, and in return, we try to outdo our own mixed idioms. I often think of Titania and Bottom, who has been transformed in an ass in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, as a metaphor of a writer who writes in languages that he/she is not able to fully control. Occasionally, I finish my writing with the impression that my English is no longer foreign to me and that I am finally able to pull the linguistic strings with dexterity. Looking at my work a couple of days later however, I find myself face to face with a monster — a mixture of idioms that do not go well together, expressions that betray the intended meaning, words that overfill sentences to the point of bursting, nouns that lacked articles, misplaced prepositions — in short, an ass's head on a human body. The economy of language often seems like a solution. Furthermore, in the world where everybody talks too much and writes too much, language is used and misused, therefore the economy of language, as the last resort of a writer between cultures, is a way of appreciating it more and trusting it less.

The gap between languages often manifests itself as a dilemma between expressive and communicational language. For a writer who writes in his or her native tongue, this split does not exist since the expressive and the communicational aspects have equal potential to be generated through a mono-linguistic system. For an emigrant writer, the expressive function is stronger in his/her mother tongue, while the possibility to communicate within the new context is in the appropriated (thus foreign) language. The Russian Formalist scholar and later emigrant professor of linguistics in the United States, Roman Jakobson, uses aphasia, a language disorder that is related to memory loss, to describe the notions of metaphor and metonymy.4 For Jakobson, aphasic disorder acts on two axes of language in different ways so that those suffering from a ‘continuity disorder’ tend to use substitution, which is the principle of metaphor, and those suffering from ‘similarity disorder’ tend to use association, which is the canon of metonymy. The situation where one's expressive potential is placed in one language and communicational in another resembles Jakobson's notion of metonymy and metaphor. A writer's split between languages, her cultural aphasia so to speak, points to the impossibility of producing meaning thorough one, single language and cultural system. Furthermore, what is in reality a medical disorder that needs to be treated, in art becomes an aesthetic device rich in signifying potentials. In other words, Jakobson describes the disorder or the deviation from the norm — what can be thought as the symptoms of aphasia and the basis of metaphor and metonymy — as an aesthetic means of deautomatizing worn-out expressions and of enriching linguistic conventions with new meaning. The playwright between languages has no other choice but to aestheticize this rift between idioms, to turn its “disorder” into an artistic device. Thus, expressive and communicational functions of language become fulfilled by means of two different idioms in the process of combination and mutual translation.

Languages, Spaces, Identities

Although playwrights Quan, Rylski and Verdecchia have a native speaker's command of the English language, their works still resonate from the gap between cultures, languages and identities. The theme of home as both place and displacement is interwoven in both works. Furthermore, the discourse of home and its multilingual nature determines the dramatic and theatrical representation of space and identity. In other words, it involves a split in space and identity that establishes itself through linguistic and cultural crossroads and pathways.

In Quan's Mother Tongue, the notion of home and the space between languages is represented in a very literal sense. The drama concerns a Chinese family polarized through no less then three languages and worlds. The mother lives in the Cantonese idiom and tradition, trying to isolate herself from the new environment, the deaf son communicates through sign language, and the daughter moves between English, Cantonese and sign language, often serving as a translator. Through this mixture of languages the notion of home is no longer one clearly defined and circumscribed space. Glenn Davidson's set for the production further emphasized this ambiguity of place by mounting two stages and a catwalk/bridge in between them. On the one side of the bridge, the mother tongue culture is represented as a kitchen/dining room where national dishes are cooked, traditional stories are told and incense is burned for native gods. On the other side of the bridge, the space of the new culture where the immigrant has yet to leave his or her imprint, the stage remains almost entirely bare. The main protagonist, the daughter, spends most of her time on the bridge, in between the stages, translating one culture through the other, wanting to study architecture so that she can build bridges. Even though the central metaphor of a bridge is perhaps too overused to truly contribute to the discourse of place and displacement, it emphasizes translation as the main action of the performance. The audience becomes involved in the translation process switching from one language to the other, decoding the foreign language through the familiar one and vice versa. Much more powerful than the symbol of the bridge, however, is the less explored metaphor of the polyglot. This metaphor is represented through the brother/sister pair. While her communication with the world is crammed with different idioms, his interchange occurs as a reduction, minimization, a strict codified economy of language on the verge of silence. She lives in the forest of languages, he lives outside the language of sound. They are two sides of the same coin: the polyglot oscillating between logorrhea and muteness.

Nika Rylski's play Just a Kommedia examines the gap between the second generation of Ukrainian Canadians and their parents. The notion of home is again represented as a division between tradition and the new environment, between preservation and assimilation, parents and children. This split unfolds spatially as theatre within the theatre. The action takes place interchangeably in private spaces and in the public space of a theatrical stage where “the 25th Anniversary Concert” for the Ukrainian-Canadian community takes place. Furthermore, the chronological order of events is disturbed as past and present intertwine. The relationship between stage and reality, past and present, parents and children is represented as a somewhat confused combination of different cultural symbols and idioms. In the first scene the Ukrainian flag and the Maple Leaf are standing side by side on the stage of the 25th Anniversary Celebration, while the lines of Canadian and Ukrainian anthem are mixed in one song. Borsch and hot-dog, kasha and Big Mac are joined on the menus and in the consciousness of the protagonists. The inscription of Ukrainian words and expressions disrupts the English idiom, reflecting a typical linguistic dynamic of an immigrant community. The mixture of cultural symbols, national dishes and languages at the same time divides and transcends the two worlds. The device of theatre within the theatre is the unifying framework within which both tradition and reality become fictional. The playwright fragments the text in 13 episodes following the program of the anniversary celebration, so the scenes are called “Anthem… With the St. Vladimir and Sophia Church Choir;” “Sponsor's Message… The Crutchkowski Cossack Trio;” “Home Sweet Home… Greetings from the Legislative Assembly;” and so on. Both private history and the cultural universe of immigrants are depicted here as illusory. The generation of parents tries to preserve their native tradition that unfolds as an encrusted construct, refusing to accept, even after so many years, the reality of their new environment. In other words, the ritual of preservation creates a fictional space of an imaginary Ukraine that does not exist and has never existed. The next generation does not fully bridge the gap in which its parents live, since it is too assimilated to fit into the imagined Ukrainian identity and too foreign to be Anglo-Saxon Canadian. In Just a Kommedia, both generations inhabit for different reasons the no man's land between cultures and languages, which becomes materialized in this play as a space loaded with translating potential. The portable home away from home, which immigrant so passionately tries to guard, turns out to be in this case the theatrical stage, thus, something highly mimetic and illusory in nature.

In Verdecchia's short movie Crucero/Crossroads, the difference between spaces, cultures and languages is internalized. It manifests itself as an identity split where Verdecchia, assuming the stage persona of an Argentinean immigrant living in Toronto, acquires a theatrical and cultural double — the pan Latino stereotype with an appropriated Anglo-Saxon name — Wideload. Wideload is the embodiment of everything that North American culture assumes to be Latin American. He is flamboyant, speaks with a Spanish accent, is the son of “Tupac Amaru, Pancho Villa, Pedro Navajo, Dona Flora, Sor Juana and Speedy Gonzales,” is a great dancer of samba, rumba and tango and a proud Latin lover. He wants to cash in on his exotic identity by creating a “Third World Theme Park” on “a toxic wasteland” to recreate the atmosphere of Brazilian slums for amusement of North American visitors. He is a product of the “inter-human church,” a notion coined by the Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz, who, by the way, himself happened to spend years in Argentinean and French exile. According to Gombrowicz, we are all members of the “inter-human church” and as such are denied the possibility of owing a true, authentic identity.5 In other words, we are all created through the perception and discourse of others and it is this changing context in which we find ourselves that necessitates an identity that is in constant flux.

Wideload is at home in his body partly because he is a stereotype, a cultural android — a fictional construct that feels no pain. The playwright's creation of Wideload is gestic in a Brechtian sense. The language of a Latino stereotype with, of course, a Spanish accent, creates a different body from that of Verdecchia's stage persona. The body language of Wideload reveals an attitude that is highly political as it both meets the expectations and confronts the cultural assumptions that have created him. An inter-cultural cliche is the immigrant's double, which here not only represents an identity split, but also shows the reception of the other as a perpetual recreation of a stereotype.

The Verdecchia persona is quite the opposite to Wideload: he speaks English without an accent, does not display the flamboyant Latino character, confesses to be a poor dancer — in short he fails to meet cultural expectations. Verdecchia's first name, Guillermo, is too foreign to be pronounced so that it might melt into the sounds of other Anglo-Saxon names, and yet his persona does not fully embody the exotic other either. The crossroads of geographies, histories and cultures are inscribed here in the body and epitomized through an identity crisis. In other words, the notion of both place and displacement are mapped on the bodies of an Argentinean immigrant and his pan-Latino double. The idea of crossroads is not only present as a division between spaces and languages, but also as an overload of cultural baggage. The gap between cultures is not necessarily a space of lack and void, but a place where idioms, homelands, identities, and stereotypes multiply exponentially but create a crisis of self all the same. Verdecchia's stage persona speaks English, Spanish and some French, and his sense of history is an eclectic mixture culled from both Western and Latin American sources. Physically experiencing his crisis as something bordering on illness, he seeks help from both a North American physician and a Latin American curandero, and turns to both languages and both cultures in the attempt to find a way of transcending that gap which has made him as much a stranger in his native land as in his foreign world.

The Pleasures of Multi-lingualism

The crossover of languages and cultures in the above-mentioned works, deautomatises the conventional polarities of own and foreign. The playwright between languages, distanced from his/her native culture and never completely integrated into the host culture, enjoys the particular pleasure of defamiliarisation. He/she sees both worlds from an unusual, uncommon perspective. For Russian Formalist scholar Viktor Shklovsky, the role of art is to make the familiar strange, so that the well-known can be seen as if for the first time.6 Since assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes blur the perception of reality, the role of an artist is to see things differently. Describing this strategy of art as estrangement, Shklovsky coined the neologism ostranenie. Stranno in Russian means strange, with the prefix o denotes the process of turning the familiar into the strange resulting in the dynamic co-existence of both categories. Ostranenie implies the strategy of uprooting, taking things out of their habitual context, and making something more perceptible through displacement. The perspective of an immigrant writer at the crossroads of languages and cultures then, is one of ostranenie. This position is loaded with positive epistemological potential that highlights the duality between familiar and strange present in everything that we consider our own and in everything that we recognize as foreign. This distancing perspective, seen here as intrinsic to the immigrant artist, rejuvenates perception and counter-acts the deadening automatism of the habitual.

Aristotle wrote that inscribing strange, unfamiliar, foreign words into the metrics of a native idiom creates the language of art. Shklovsky recognizes this approach as a defamiliarization strategy that subverts worn-out linguistic conventions and resurrects the meaning of words. The writer between languages is almost a life-style practitioner of defamiliarization. Just as there are some things that can be expressed in the native language, there are others that can only be expressed in the appropriated foreign idiom. Similarly, there are also those things that come to life only through a mixture of own and foreign, and those that can be preserved only through and as translations. The pleasure of multilingualism is the writer's point of no return. In other words, once one enters the forest of languages, one can never return to mono-linguistic discourse.

In the three works considered here, homes, national identities and cultures are, to some extent, fictional constructs. In Mother Tongue the native, versus foreign is generated as a folk-tale about a bird that leaves its nest. In Just a Kommedia this relationship becomes theatricalized. In Crossroads, it is embodied through a fictional pan-Latino identity. Is the playwright between languages thus able to deconstruct and transcend cultures and nationalities? Beckett and Ionesco, both writing in a language other than their mother tongue, did so by placing their characters in Everyman's / No Man's land. In the last chapter of the Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure writes that signs are not organically motivated, but rather constructed through cultural conventions, thus denying any connection between language and blood.7 Wouldn't it be possible to conceive the notion of mother tongue as a negotiable linguistic contract? And couldn't our sense of identity survive without the sense of national belonging? Doesn't the opening in the gap between cultures, the space at the crossroads, offer us a possibility to go beyond border politics? Often epitomized in German as Blut und Boden and in my native language as krv i tlo, it translates into English as the politics of blood and land, to whose ominous and dangerous character attests the destiny of the world I came from. The Yugoslavian writer and Parisian immigrant, Danilo Kis, wrote a story entitled Apatrid, inspired by the life of playwright Oden von Horvat. Kis' apatrid says the following:

I am a typical mixture of the late Austro-Hungarian monarchy: at the same time Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak, German, Czech — and if I dug into my ancestry or give my blood sample for scientific analysis — very popular among nationalists — I would find, as in a riverbed, traces of Tzintzar, Armenian, may be even Gypsy and Jewish blood. […] I have been bilingual since birth. I have written in Hungarian and German since I was eighteen when, translating a collection of poems by a Hungarian poet, I chose German as the language closest to my voice. I am a German writer; the world is my homeland.8

The playwright between languages indulges in the pleasures, freedoms, and illusions of multiculturalism; there is a price to pay.

  1. Quan's Mother Tongue was directed by Jim Warren and produced by Cahoots and Factory Theatre, Toronto, 2001.
  2. Nika Rylski, Just a Kommedia, Canadian Mosaic: Six Plays. Ed. Aviva Ravel, Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1995, 131-64.
  3. Guillermo Verdecchia, Crucero/Crossroads. Directed and produced by Ramiro Puerta, Mongrel Media, 1994. See also Guillermo Verdecchia, Fronteras Americanas. Toronto: Talonbooks, 1998
  4. Roman Jakobson, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” 1956.
  5. Gombrowicz introduced the notion of the “inter-human church” in the preface to his play The Marriage. See Witold Gombrowicz, The Marriage. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970.
  6. Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device”
  7. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. tr./ed. W. Baskin. New York, 1959. 1966 pp. 222-3.
  8. Danilo Kis, “Apatrid,” Lauta i Oziljci, Beograd: BIGZ, 1994. pp. 13-14 (my translation, S.J.).
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