Jackson Bliss | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,149 words)
In 2002, when I was living in Portland, Oregon, I got a call from a friend of a friend who worked for an immigration lawyer. One of her colleagues needed a French interpreter in a pinch. Could I help out? I met with the asylum lawyer and a refugee who I’ll call Yacoub to go over a few things in his family history and adapt to each other’s accents. Yacoub and I were listening to words we already knew, but couldn’t always recognize coming out of each other’s mouths. He had a Mauritanian accent and like most West Africans, he rolled his R’s. According to most French speakers, I had a Belgian or Swiss accent. As we spoke, we became victims of dialect, urgency, and defamiliarization, but we pushed on with our flawed cultural exchange because his life depended on it.
On the day of Yacoub’s asylum interview, we met in the lobby of the I.N.S. building. The air was stagnant like in every government building, filled with the weight of human words, confessed and unspoken, official and unwritten, stamped and erased. After all, this federal agency was a de facto dictionary of American citizenship, defining Americanness in the sense that what was called American and what wasn’t (i.e., who became American and who didn’t), was continuously defined, interpreted, and redefined here, not by linguists, philology scholars, or grammarians, but by civil servants carrying suspiciously thin folders that reduced human struggle to bullet points. Above the x-ray machine, the dual portraits of Bush and Cheney practically snickered at me. There could have been dialogue bubbles coming from their mouths that said, Good luck kid. This country isn’t a free ride and we don’t give a shit about Mauritanians unless they bring over a corporation. I grabbed my satchel from the X-Ray machine and took the elevator to the 9th floor, my feet tapping the ground to break up the silence. As Yacoub’s translator, silence meant loss and loss meant deportation. For both of our sakes, I vowed to fight that silence and defeat my own self-consciousness to the very end, so that I could be the advocate he needed. This moment forced me to reconsider the power of my own words.
Eight years earlier, after spending an entire summer in college working on a coming-of-age novel and some shorter nonfiction pieces, my mom mentioned my prodigious output to my brother, who got annoyed and blurted out that my writing was “just a bunch of words.” That slogan became forgotten artillery ordnance in a proxy war of identity, language, and vocation until the first explosion. The delayed violence of those words was disguised to me until the exact moment I tripped over them unwittingly. For seven years, whenever I started seeing myself as a writer, even for a brief moment, I’d hear his barb again and watch the world around me detonate into rubble. The fact that my brother and I have been extremely close since I was in junior high didn’t diffuse the explosiveness of his words. I was too vulnerable to criticism and afraid of failure. I was sensitive to his dismissal because my writing career had always been suspect at best and aspirational at worst. It was only after a stint in the Peace Corps and a series of volunteer gigs working with refugees that I learned the power, the necessity, and the redemption of language, the way it could literally help some people achieve cultural reincarnation in America.
At my liberal arts college, I’d been working on a maximalist bildungsroman called Letters from a Pyromaniac about a college student (of course) who left America, fell in love in Provence, became a famous writer, and wrote his American family and friends letters to placate his own expat guilt. It took me four years to write that monstrosity of sadness and longing. To this day, I’ve never revised it (and don’t want to). Letters from a Pyromaniac had a number of fatal and irrevocable flaws, but it was still a useful exercise because it helped me understand that I was one of those “language-driven” fiction writers. At the same time, I was incredibly sensitive about my shortcomings and deeply insecure about whether I’d actually written a novel or just a bunch of words. Considering the long and tortured war that America has waged on intellectuals, writers, and artists, my self-reproach was inevitable. In fact, during creeping moments of nauseating insecurity, artistic futility, and impostor syndrome, I doubted myself so much that I asked book-loving friends and theory-smart girlfriends to read sample chapters to see if I was wasting my time. Maybe, this is just the nature of insecurity: being skilled at deflecting positive feedback, magnetically attracted to totalizing self-criticism, sadomasochism, and self-loathing. My brother’s barb wasn’t meant to go in that deep, but it did. I knew then just as I know now that in his mind, he was just calling me out on my shit, which is what siblings do, but his reasons for saying what he said didn’t actually matter once they entered my bloodstream. Malicious language, by its nature, is a slow-acting neurotoxin on the self and on the cultural imagination. For much of my life, I felt as if I had no right to reimagine my past through the prism of my own words, and yet language was sometimes the only friend I had in my 20s. Language helped me interrogate and embrace this country as a site of narrativized trauma, racial complexity, class evolution, historical violence, polyvocality, existential reimagining, and cultural hyphenation. Language became a good luck charm to ward off the cult of binary thinking and a hidden password to open up the secret spaces of my own hapa identity. That kind of magic was an unassembled power.
After spending an entire summer in college working on a coming-of-age novel and some shorter nonfiction pieces, my mom mentioned my prodigious output to my brother, who got annoyed and blurted out that my writing was ‘just a bunch of words.’
In grad school, usually at cafés or walking around campus, I meditated on language, which I saw as a suspension bridge, connecting, but also conforming to separate cultures and ethnicities like the English my obāsan spoke with her thick Japanese accent during the holidays, or the English words she peppered into her Nihongo every time she called her sister back in Osaka. Language wears the clothes of our own speech patterns and linguistic idiosyncrasies. Language is a cross-cultural love story of chatting merchants, violated rules, and forgotten Latin declensions. Language is a giant swingers party where slang swapped partners with stodgy grammar. Language is an hourglass of human culture, a vivid description of the physical world. Of course, as a grad student obsessed with philology, Japanese novels, foreign languages, and etymology, these flirty metaphors about language were exciting because they made invisible things feel visible. And yet, even my walking meditations got swept away with a single slogan: Just a bunch of words. Every time I heard it, I got the chills. My companionship in words, my ideas about language, all disintegrated into phonemes until there was nothing but the sounds themselves.
In the Sahelian village of Djibasso, where I taught English to middle school students in Burkina Faso as a Peace Corps volunteer, I spoke so much French to villagers, students, and colleagues at the local collège the first two months that my head throbbed. After months of language training and years of studying French at university, I was fluent, but sounded completely unnatural. After speaking all day in French to villagers and colleagues at the local collège, my head hurt. My problem was that I kept translating my thoughts into blocks of idiomatic French, instead of letting my French pour out naturally and imperfectly as we do when we speak our native tongue. My fear of fucking up French was stopping me from speaking it freely because I had a problem letting go of my identification with language. I had a problem letting go of my absolute fluency. In my 4eme and 5eme classes, I spoke French like I was trying to harness it into a long sword to slay the awkward silence and darting glances inside the classroom. Never in my life was I more convinced that I was just a bunch of words than in my first months in West Africa, where every moment was weighed in the units of language (both its conspicuous absence and its unpredictable abundance). There were so many words I could not be in my village where local languages like Bwamu, Fulani, and Jula competed with French, the colonial lingua franca, so being able to define myself metonymically as just a bunch of words, even in French, was semantically thrilling. The highest form of cultural prayer, really.
It was 10 o’clock in the morning and I was drinking wine with Jules the surveillant, who had lured me to a local buvette to show me les gens du coin (the locals), only to find out he wanted me to buy a round of stale wine before lunchtime. He was talking passionately about how much he wanted his daughters to go to college. He wanted to see them succeed in a way he never had. I took a sip of the old boxed wine and winced, interjecting comments whenever he paused to breathe. My French was clumsy and odd-shaped as we spoke. I couldn’t pluck the right words from my mind and harness them into an honest sentence so early in the morning, but I knew they were hidden inside me, had always been inside me since adolescence, when I’d studied French for the first time, snagged in a huge butterfly net of memory, sound, and language. Someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, the words would eventually come out right, even if I had to return to the States to catch all of them with a flick of the wrist.
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Inside the interview room that was both an interrogation cell and a seminar room, perfectly balancing spaciousness and austerity, muted wood desktops and suffocating minimalism, I swallowed the dust mites in my throat and sat down. It was so quiet in there you could hear yourself breathing. The I.N.S. officer walked slowly inside the room. His greeting was cordial and warm, but also superficial and restrained. He reminded me of a divine bureaucrat in Kafka’s castle.
After making small talk, the officer opened up his too-thin folder pierced with its own bullet points. The warmth in his face clicked off and the asylum interview began. Over the next three hours, he asked Yacoub questions that were so heavily nuanced and so deeply personal and invasive, my job changed from interpreter to biographer, from mouthpiece of the state to amateur eidetic. It was as if both men were trying to condense an entire relationship into one conversation so they would never have to speak again. As I began translating their mediated dialogue like a spiritual medium, my mouth overflowed with experiences I’d never had before, details of places I’d never seen, and questions I’d never posed. My role as cultural translator forced me to wear the mask of both the INS officer and Yacoub simultaneously: a two-way mouthpiece and intersection for their personal tragedy, suspended humanity, blunt interrogation, emotional devastation, and forced empathy. As I retold Yacoub’s story — in English — of being hauled into trucks by Mauritanian Arabs where he later escaped to a Senegalese refugee camp, I began slowly understanding that for some people, diction had existential and political repercussions. For some people, one careless sentence, one mistranslation, and one conflated antecedent could ruin their lives forever. I could accidentally annihilate this man’s American life, accidentally erase his American family, by misunderstanding the very things I once believed were both academic and irrelevant (except in lit seminars). Suddenly, tone and syntax, phraseology, idiomatic expressions, grammar, double entendre, slang, speech utterances, class performance, point of view, irony, implicit argumentation, and figure of speech could all change the meaning of his life, set it on its head, and radically alter its definition in both a linguistic and ontological sense. This interview came down to a few key words that could change this man’s destiny. I needed my words to be the right ones.
Yacoub continued reciting his life story to me in French: he’d met an American woman he loved. They had a daughter who knew nothing of his old life, working as un boy, a servant in an upper class home in Dakar. This linguistic power to frame, exonerate, and humanize Yacoub’s asylum narrative was something I didn’t want, but was forced to accept anyway. The power of language was dangling before my eyes like a golden bough in a Roman fairytale. I knew that my failure as his translator could eject him from Portland and destroy his own imagination of himself as a future American. Using the wrong tense, being too literal, forgetting the nuance of an African expression, or ignoring the valence of a Senegalese-French idiom, could all have catastrophic consequences inside this room and the fault would be mine. It was insane pressure. It was unjustified power. The whole world glowed in the reflection of every word. If Yacoub were sent back to his village in Senegal where his father was enlevé, Yacoub would be enlevé too. That’s what’s he wanted me to tell the I.N.S. officer. Enlevé: to be removed, taken, kidnapped, or made to disappear. It’s an awful word because it means all of those things at once, but you have just one shot to save a refugee’s life when you translate his injustice, which is itself an injustice.
Trying to be understood and trying to understand someone else and learning all of the unique ways in which people use language to tell stories about themselves is an exhausting but necessary exercise in human empathy.
As a translator, my job was to help these men understand each other in a way that language, by its very nature, is constrained from doing well. After all, the spaces between words, the holes inside them, are an entire galaxy unto themselves, separating peoples and cultures. Words constitute our first and last attempt to digitize reality through syntax, the way we create Tibetan sand art out of breath, sound, and phoneme. And when language fails — as it so often does, as it inevitably will — we become allergic to human intention. How could I possibly harness this flawed process of translation when no language could survive its own cultural vivisection forever? How could I help these men understand each other (one black, one white, one refugee, one US citizen, one outsider, one insider) if the conditions for their mutual understanding were predicated on the unstable fault line of a destabilized and moving object like language?
On the other hand, was there anything more human in the whole cosmos than language? So infinitely complex, always the mouthpiece to infinite abstraction, always permutated and always permutating, always misused, violated, and disrespected, always metamorphic and static, potential and kinetic, yet always time-traveling between stuck and fluid meanings. There is something strangely noble and absurd about language, the way we try to do justice to this fleeting and ineffable world through the portraiture of our own words despite being constrained by language itself.
By the third hour of the asylum interview, I was depleted. Trying to be understood and trying to understand someone else and learning all of the unique ways in which people use language to tell stories about themselves is an exhausting but necessary exercise in human empathy. Words would never capture the penumbra in Sacré Coeur or the smell of fresh pains au chocolat in a Latin Quarter bakery that Yacoub probably flew over on his way to America. Words would never replicate the intensity of Kandinsky’s color symbolism and Buddhist thangkas, or unleash the smell of wet grass and fresh soba noodles in a Tokyo yatai, or recreate the lyrical melancholy of a Billy Holiday ballad, or the tiny percussive thuds of shattered glass in a Los Angeles hit and run. Words, like their inventors, have serious limitations and those limitations define the inventors in tragic and fatal ways. At yet despite its intrinsic fragility, promiscuity, and ambiguity, language is a clumsy bomb we drop on our own primordial state of helplessness to gain the upper hand in our communication with the void. We use it for wedding vows and song lyrics, stop signs, and divorces. We use a radio address to declare war and we use language to incite riots. We use language to read verdicts, canonize fables, and demonize flawed celebrities. We use language to persuade, provoke, and seduce readers. We use language to coerce, incite, and inflict enemies. We use language to seize control of political scandals and also to create them through facile narratives. There’s something noble and absurd about the imperfections of language, the way we insist on using something with such fatal and permanent errors. Maybe we like its fatality, musicality, and mutability. Maybe, we admire its elasticity, pluck, and indestructibility. Maybe, we see ourselves in our own medium of communication. Maybe, we like the futile project of transforming and approximating a reality that is naturally elusive. Maybe, the beauty of language is its own impossibility, conceived out of our insatiable need to be what we can never be, which is stable and immutable. Maybe, language is the perfect placeholder for our failed immortality.
Inside the I.N.S. room in the early afternoon, it hit me that the wrong words could condemn a Mauritanian refugee to a Senegalese dungeon, but the right ones could baptize his second child or piggyback the high F in our explosive national anthem. Words could commute Yacoub’s death sentence and anoint his American wife with the name of a Mauritanian tribe. Words could be a cultural arsenal for a generation of new immigrants stuck in the stockpiles of unassembled language, or words could be the mouthpiece of white supremacy framing, speaking over, and rewriting the struggles of the subaltern as so many political revisionists have done in the past. The truth is that with a little love, pruning, and proper revision, words could even become material witnesses of our own trauma, just as they had been for this man seeking a better life in a country distrustful of words (and the people who use them well). Words could incarnate pain, it’s true, but also heal that pain by converting readers and I.N.S. officers to witnesses of history, by turning us all into guerillas of cultural evolution and defenders of public good.
My own discovery of the immanent power of language was also my technique for forgiveness. I forgave my brother by understanding the responsibility and the power that always comes with speaking the unspoken in the police state of unspeakability. I learned that silenced people were always worth fighting for. I learned that words (my words, your words, their words) were the only chance we had to save this damaged world from itself.
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Jackson Bliss is the author of the experimental memoir in progress, Dream Pop Origami, from which this is excerpted. His essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Guernica, Tin House, Boston Review, and the Antioch Review, among many others.
Editor: Sari Botton