Non-fiction

Speaking my language

Blood will tear us apart. Again.

MY AUNTIE HAS stopped speaking to her siblings. Rifts like these are commonplace in my family, where people fall out with each other like dealt cards. The size of our family doesn’t help. The original eight siblings have grown into four generations and almost ninety people. This year two of my cousins had babies and another announced her pregnancy. There are now too many of us to squeeze into our suburban homes at one time. Full family parties happen only at parks and playgrounds or in the backyards of wealthy family members, which are the only backyards that can accommodate
us all. 

Some of the grievances are historic, dating back decades and finessed over time. Others are new, fresh. It’s a condition prevalent among migrant families, especially those like mine who have been tentative – because of differences in language, culture, class, education – to socialise widely in Australia. We are tethered to each other and this tether grows thin, frayed by too many gatherings filled with the same faces and the echoes of old pains. We fight often, and in this context my seventy-year-old auntie’s antagonism is understandable.

Except for this. She will speak to her siblings (and presumably to us nieces and nephews) if we speak to her in English or French. She just won’t speak to anyone in Creole anymore.

It was my dad who told me this, and when I asked why, he muttered something about Creole being a low language. What do you mean, I pressed. A low language, my dad said again. You know, without proper verbs and things like that.

Creole, the language that my Mauritian family speak with one another, is a patois – a variation on French. That’s what I’ve always been told, anyway. Google tells me something else: that it’s a mix of a European with ‘local’ languages, especially African languages spoken by slaves in the West Indies – this is mentioned discretely, in brackets. Like my auntie, Google also privileges French.

Privileging the French is a core activity of my family. It’s something we do while we cook wonton and eat biryani and say ‘ai yo’.

According to Wikipedia, the Mauritian Constitution does not stipulate an official language for the country – it states that the official language of the parliament shall be English, but ‘any member may address the Chair in French’. In the Mauritian Parliament, French is second only to English. By contrast, 86.5 per cent of Mauritians speak Creole. And yet, Creole is for the streets, the marketplace, the home. It doesn’t belong in august institutions where important matters are being decided.

Mauritius is not the only country with this disconnect between speaking and being heard. In her essay ‘In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?’, Arundhati Roy tells us that until 1965, the Indian Constitution stipulated that English was supposed to be used for official purposes. And here, where I write this essay, in Naarm, the languages of Aboriginal Australians are not heard in any ‘official’ place and in fewer and fewer ‘unofficial’ places. Every country skinned by colonisation has this same disjuncture between the languages spoken and the words heard.

In not wanting to speak Creole, my auntie is merely doing what her country asks of her. She is also doing what her mother asked of her. Despite her Chinese husband and surname, my grandmère taught her children to speak French, but not Chinese. Growing up, I could count to ten in Chinese, and the only Chinese phrases I knew were ‘wash your bum’, ‘wash your vagina’ and ‘wash your penis’. These were the height of our pre-teen insults. Once, in anger, I told my father to ‘gong hei fat choy’. He laughed. ‘What’s so funny?’ I asked in indignation. ‘I just told you to leave me alone.’

‘No you didn’t. You wished me a happy new year.’

(I also didn’t know, until I googled ‘counting to ten’, that the language we spoke was Mandarin. In my family we still just call it Chinese – and gong hei fat choy is a Cantonese phrase.)

But when it came to French, my grandmère schooled us on the intricacies of pronunciation. Her favourite grandkids were the ones who pronounced the words flawlessly, with a French tongue. Like everyone else in my family, Grandmère spoke Creole most – but for her, French was the language in which she wasn’t just seen as poor and brown, and she made sure all her children could speak it. As though the language were a cloak that could be thrown over them all, allowing them to pass, for a moment, as something they weren’t. 

I loved my grandmère. There was a pillowy warmth about her. She smiled easily. She pulled us onto her lap and sang us songs and told us stories. She went to church every week, carried ten babies in her womb and buried two. When she and her family lived in Mauritius, she rose at 5 am and worked until 11 pm making manioc (tapioca). This meant cutting, peeling, grating and draining cassava, soaking it for days, straining and kneading and drying it. My aunts would get up and work with her before going to school for the day, their hands still bleeding.

My grandpère’s job was cycling around Mauritius selling DDT to farmers. While raising a large family, Grandpère became sick, first with tuberculosis and then with typhoid. A bucket was kept by his bed into which he vomited blood. My favourite auntie remembers vividly the bucket, the blood and the distance they were forced to keep from it.

This is all, of course, a way of me telling you not to judge my grandmère. In showing you how hard her life was, I am creating a chasm between your life and hers. After all, if you are reading this essay, you must, like me, have certain levels of privilege – economic, educational and cultural. She had none of these.

I don’t judge my grandmère, or even my auntie, for privileging French over Creole. Their experiences are not my own. Neither of them had the luxury of studying for an arts degree at a university where the curriculum was taught in the language that the vast majority of the population spoke. English is a language that has been forced on us all. That doesn’t make us all heard, by the way. But it suggests that we might be heard if we say the right things to the right people. As Roy reminds us, in India – as in Mauritius and Australia – English is the language ‘of privilege and exclusion’. It is also the language ‘of mobility, of opportunity, of the courts, of the national press’ and so on and on and on.

 

YET UNLIKE INDIA or Australia, Mauritius has never had an indigenous population. It is a country that has been written on and rewritten over. Lindsey Collen, a Mauritian writer and activist, states ‘There is no “before colonization” in Mauritius from the point-of-view of human society. This is an important part of the Mauritian soul. There is no utopia available to our imaginations from “before colonization destroyed it”.’ Over the course of a couple of hundred years, people came and left Mauritius from disparate parts of the world. The fifteenth-century Arabians, the Portuguese. Then the seventeenth-century Dutch, who introduced slavery before abandoning the island. In the eighteenth century, the French came with Africans they had stolen from the mainland. Then came the English a hundred years later with indentured workers from India. The French and English found it was easier to stay in a place, to make it their home, if they forced other people to do the work.

Like most countries with a history of slavery, both real and economic – indentured workers are not enslaved physically, but they are also not free – Mauritius has deep issues around racism and identity. It has been successfully colonised twice, first by the French and then by the English. At one point in history, slaves constituted 80 per cent of the Mauritian population. It’s no surprise, then, that many Mauritians are eager to emphasise their European heritage. They hold the other parts of themselves – Chinese, African, Indian – under deep water.

The country was formally decolonised in 1968. It was too late for my family, who emigrated to Australia in 1969. They never got to feel what their country was like free of British rule, to exhale as (some) of its institutions became more democratic and multicultural. In coming here to escape British imperialism, they merely traded one form of colonisation for another.

This is why Grandmère insisted that her mother was light-skinned with grey eyes. This is how her story goes, though everything about us – our hair, eyes, lips, skin – suggests that this cannot be true. My grandmère’s surname before Kon-yu was Leubas (pronounced Le-bah), though this is an uncommon name and one that I’ve had some difficulty tracing. My Mauritian family has a history of strange names: Kon-yu is a strange name, a Chinese academic once told me. As far as she knew, Chinese names weren’t hyphenated. There aren’t many Kon-yus around the world, and we’re the only ones in Australia. If you search for Leubas and its variations, the most popular name you will find is Leuba (pronounced Loo-bar), which is a name most commonly found in Switzerland.

These are not our people.

 

THE ONLY LANGUAGE I speak fluently now is English, and this is a language buttressed against the world. Most of the global population is familiar with English. It sits alongside French, Chinese, German and Spanish in the instructions for my coffee machine, my oven, my vacuum cleaner. Its foundations are solid. Its grip unshakeable.

It’s not the same for Creole, the language my auntie was born into, the one she learnt to speak, sing and pray in. It’s not a language that appears in instruction manuals, though I have found it in some pretty unusual places. I heard it once in a film set on an American bayou. I was shocked by the familiar coming from a deeply different place. I’ve heard it in pop songs (mostly from the ’80s). But I know it best from my family, my father, his siblings and their parents. It was one of the first languages I knew. A language I didn’t have to translate, but one that sat within my skin. A language that, in the words of Arundhati Roy, grew me up.

I probably stopped speaking Creole in my early twenties when my grandmère died. I try to speak it still with my aunties, but I fumble, embarrassed, over my loss of basic words and phrases. I find myself translating from English to Creole in my mind. The only time in my adult life when the language comes back to me is when I am with my children. All my lullabies are in Creole and, as it turns out, so are many of my commands. ‘Donne moi ton li pied,’ I ask my son as I dress him in his pyjamas. ‘Pa touché ça!’ I’ll cry out. My kids, born in Australia to two English-speaking parents, don’t know yet that they’re hearing Creole. They don’t know how low their language is. The other language they hear, the other one I speak, my other first language, is Italian. This comes from my mother and from my nonna and nonno. It’s easier to put effort into relearning Italian – there are books and apps and classes. It is, as my father and auntie and grandmère have intimated, a proper language. People want to learn it. Like Creole, Italian bursts out of me at odd moments. Most often at the Italian deli, where the air is thick with baccala, provolone and the sounds of words I remember, however dimly. It forces its way through, like Creole, when I am with my children. Again, lullabies and commands are sung and given in Italian. Here the languages are easy. They slip out of me as though no other language stands in their way. There is no translating. There is just memory.

 

THIS IS AN uncomfortable matrix of things to be born into. Especially now, in this cultural moment when it seems as if everything must be tied down, defined. I feel a pressure, exerted from almost everywhere, to define myself now in a certain way, as a woman of colour, even though this definition doesn’t quite fit. (I call myself a woman of some colour – my way of refusing the categorisation and a pitiful statement about how light my skin has become in Melbourne.) I am wary of taking space from people who are defined much more categorically by their skin colour, who cannot pass. Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda speak of this cultural moment in the introduction to their (with artist Max King Cap) excellent anthology The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. They talk about how at this point in time many self-identified people of colour 

are most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, talking about [race] in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers, the undeserving. The good intentions and the cynical manipulations. The righteous side-taking, the head shaking. Scandal is such a helpful, such a relieving distraction. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around.

This binary of good/bad is problematic when it comes to race and ethnicity. It belies the nuances of cultural identity. For academic Carole Boyce Davies:

The terms that we use to name ourselves (Black, African, African-American, Black British, Minority, Latina/o, West Indian, Caribbean, Hispanic, People of Color, Women of Color, Afro-Caribbean, Third World and so on) carry their strings of echoes and inscriptions. Each represents an original misnaming and the simultaneous constant striving of the dispossessed for full representation. Each therefore must be used provisionally; each must be subject to new analyses, new questions and new understandings if we are to unlock some of the narrow terms of the discourses in which we are inscribed.

I am cautious of tying myself to a set of definitions based on my skin colour and unusual surname. When the issue is racism, then racial categorisations can only get us so far. Racism doesn’t respect geographic or religious differences. I’m also painfully aware that Mauritius is a country where the colour bar was instituted and wielded against its citizens. And I’ve never forgotten what Toni Morrison pointed out in Beloved – that ‘Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined’.

Yet, even so, sometime in early 2020, I decided to take a DNA test. I was sceptical, but curiosity got the better of me. I was tired, I think, of living a life with a history that no one could agree on. Where my grandparents decided – and rightly so – that the best way to get by in Mauritius, and then in Australia, was to emphasise those parts of themselves that spoke to education, class and refinement. To bring out the light and hide the dark.

The results came during the pandemic and the first lockdown here in Melbourne. They were a brilliant moment of sunshine in days that hung greyly together. Here, at last, was the answer to who I actually was and where my family were definitely from. And yes, I know these things are not always accurate, that mistakes are made and cultures lumped clumsily together. But I was ready for a different thread of the story.

The results were a seismic shift in the narrative of who we are and where we are from. I found out I am Asian, but not Chinese. I have always been told that my grandpère came from Kowloon, and it turns out only a measly 2.6 per cent of my DNA is Chinese. There is no French. None at all (au revoir, then, to my great-grandmother, who spoke fluent French and read books and had white skin and grey eyes). When I shared my DNA results with my cousins over a family group chat, they were shocked. One exclaimed, ‘you are more than half-Asian!’ Both her parents are from Mauritius, and it reminds me that even in my own family, we categorise ourselves. I was surprised by this too, assuming my ethnicity was split down the middle, that my shorthand cultural signification was ‘Eurasian’. All this time, I have been far more Asian than Eur.

I grieved when I got these results. I grieved for the cultures I had been told I belonged to, whose traditions my family and I practised. Our love of yum cha, the little red envelopes my grandpère gave us at Chinese New Year when we were kids, the easy way I fold wonton and use chopsticks. My own Chinese surname. What had once seemed genetically and culturally solid now felt like an accident of fate. A Chinese man in the right place at the right time. My favourite aunt tells me that my maternal great-grandmother was married to a Chinese man, but left him and changed her name back to Leubas when he tried to kidnap their son and take him back to China. But where does Leubas come from? My aunt said that my great-grandmother’s family came from the island of Réunion. Like Mauritius, Réunion (which sits between two African nations – Mauritius and Madagascar) has no indigenous population; unlike Mauritius, Réunion remains a French nation. It has roughly the same population demographics as Mauritius and the same legacy of slavery and colonisation. It is undeniable that both my grandmère’s names are French-sounding, but are they Creole names – Afro-French rather than European French? No one knows. And while I am used to being seen as a stranger by other people, it was quite another thing to feel like a stranger to myself. Looking at the Ethnicity Estimate in my test results, seeing myself in various coloured blobs spread out all over the world, I felt like I was from everywhere, and therefore from nowhere.

I am still Italian – at least that part of my history is true – but I’m a bit less Italian than I would like. I’m also 12 per cent English, which explains, perhaps, my nonna’s blue eyes, passed down to my son, who is the only Kon-yu born with eyes this colour. The Englishness was a particular blow to me, as someone who does postcolonial work and habitually blames the English for All the Things Wrong With the World. I won’t lie. I felt the shift of the moral high ground change under my feet when I read this.

Mauritian didn’t even rank as an ethnicity. It can’t. Everyone from Mauritius is from somewhere else, or from many places at the same time. Mauritian sociologist Malenn Oodiah says that many Mauritians see their ethnic identity as opposite to their Mauritian identity. This split is not only something we share – it is something that defines us.

 

MY GENETIC TEST confirmed a feeling I’ve had all my life: that of knowing myself from the outside in. As being part of a people, or a family, onto which things have been inscribed. Or, in Morrison’s terms, of being the defined rather than the definer. This is something familiar to all non-Anglo migrants to Australia, who, like its original inhabitants, are classified, divided and buried. This feeling sharpened as I made my way out in the world, away from my family’s homes. I couldn’t speak English when I went to school, despite being born in Australia. I became aware of the differences between myself and my classmates when I was moved from a school of working-class brown kids to one filled with working-class and middle-class white kids. I was aware at the age of seven, when my new classmates kept a polite distance from me and my difference, how little control I had over the story of who I was. Like my auntie, I refused to speak Italian and Creole at home after I started school, knowing even then how tightly English needed to be cleaved to my self. That I needed it not only to get by, but to do well.

With the loss of Creole and Italian I can no longer claim to be trilingual – a brag that middle-class people who have time for languages-as-hobbies love. But there are also things I’ve forgotten that I want to remember. My grandmére’s stories, for one. No one in my Mauritian family remembers these stories. Not one. It’s like we lost them in the deep water between here and there, discarding them as things we no longer needed. I’ve looked for them online. I’ve bought books of Mauritian fairy tales and asked people to transcribe them. But they are not our stories. I’ve searched for African fairy tales, for Indian fairy tales, for French fairy tales. All with no luck.

So where am I actually from, and does it matter? The bulk of my DNA is West Asian (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan) followed by South Asian (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka). The West Asian, I think, can be ascribed to my Italian family, who are from Sicily (a place that has a precarious relationship to Italianness at the best of times). The South Asian is something I share with another cousin who took the DNA test. And there are stories, hushed of course, of my grandpère’s mother, a Muslim woman who was either (depending on who tells the story) ostracised by her mostly Christian family, or was well-loved and died young.

My Ethnicity Estimate gives me forty-two ethnicities. My nonna used to say that life is minestrone, meaning that life is made up of many bits and pieces. Yet I don’t think even she could imagine how many bits. How many pieces.

By contrast, my husband’s ethnicity comprises two major ethnic groups: Irish and Northern European. His coloured blobs sit side by side on a map, and in that nestling it is easy to conjure an image of rows and rows of houses, dull white with deep brown roofs, stretching up over hills and into dales. I am romanticising a bit – my husband’s grandparents, like my own, were born into poverty. But when the image comes, it is of people tending gardens, birthing children and walking the same streets and fields every day. It is a map of people who were content enough to stay where they were born, who didn’t venture too far.

When I look at my own map, all I see is people fleeing.

 

I KNOW THAT the truth doesn’t reside in a random swab of my cheek, but nor does it lie in family stories that contradict themselves. It is somewhere else, secret and hidden. The hiding makes me sad. The fact that my family come from places they want to keep hidden. The fact that we are a family devoid of lore. Nobody knows anything definite about my great-grandparents, and information about my grandparents is scarce. Where did Grandmère and Grandpère meet? I asked my favourite auntie, the one who cleaved to her mother, who listened actively for information. She couldn’t say because she didn’t know. On the streets of their town most likely. She was beautiful and caught his eye. So the story goes.

There is grief here, to be part of a family who have hidden themselves from recent history. Who don’t have stories about Great Tante _____ or Grandpère _____ or Cousin _____. Who can’t trace their lineage back more than two generations before the trail wisps into nothing. Who are probably not spelling either of their surnames (Grandmère’s or Grandpère’s) properly. In Mauritius, naming is a contentious part of colonisation. Surnames were forbidden for slaves, who were only permitted to refer to themselves as ‘the so-called’. Compared with all these so-called people, we are not doing too badly, I suppose.

Along with the sadness and loss I feel, I am lucky enough to see an exit here. To think about how this multiplicity is not all bad. As an academic and writer, I have always been interested in the in-between and how it can trouble the things surrounding it. And I am bothered by a push from other non-white people I know to define themselves as one thing and not another. Like so many things, when it comes to racism, it is more unsettling when the call is coming from inside the house.

Boyce Davies contends that ‘ideologies, even resistant ones, based on biology or nationality’s “imagined community” also become a kind of flirting with danger as they too have the potential of being totalizing discourses’. For Rankine and Loffreda, the binary frequently applied to race is accompanied by ‘the trope of the discount: the one that fails to extend to other people of colour an authentic fullness of experience, a myopia that renders them in the terms of the “not really”’. When we see this, those of us who have been defined – who have developed what WEB Du Bois called ‘double consciousness’ to live in worlds that are not of our own making – should be wary. Things are not so simple. The idea of one thing and not another has been used against us all our lives. To buy into this binary, to use it against ourselves, is to enact colonisation. To let it in, under our skin. As Audre Lorde told us, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’

As Oodiah writes of the Mauritian identity, ‘Our cultural and religious differences constitute our wealth. Looking for a single identity is impoverishing.’ For me, it means inhabiting, however precariously, all of my ethnicities and owning all my family stories, however misguidedly they have been forged. To listen to my family in whatever language they choose to speak. I have to be comfortable living in between because it is the only place I actually belong. Everything I’ve been told about my family is wrong and everything I’ve been told about my family is right. We belong here and there, on many different continents and in the vast, unknown waters between them.

REFERENCES

Roy, A (2020), ‘In What Language Does Rain Fall Over Tormented Cities?’ in Azadi: Freedom, Fascism, Fiction. London: Penguin, pp. 7–52.

Collen, L (2019), ‘Colonization and De-Colonization in Mauritius Up to the Last One Month’, https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/2228/colonization-and-de-colonization-of-mauritius-up-to-the-last-one-month-by-lindsey-collen/

Boyce-Davies, C (1994), Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge.

Interview with Malenn Oodiah (2018), ‘The Mauritian Identity: The Result of a Long Journey’, https://www.luxury-in-mauritius.com/people/the-mauritian-identity-the-result-of-a-long-journey

C Rankine, B Loffreda and M King Cap (2015) The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. New York: Fence Books.

 

Note: the online version of this piece was updated from the print edition on 8 November 2021 to emphasise the point that gong hei fat choy is a Cantonese phrase and to remove a reference to Kowloon's location. 

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