Photo taken in 2008 in Gałów, Lower Silesia, with my grandmother, Jadwiga Chabsińska née Wilczyńska, shortly before her death.
On the art of feeling lonely in language and feeling less-lonely in names
wrong is not your name
it is your own
—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, “wrong is not yours”
Lingual. Of the tongue. Język. Language. I have heard talk that bilingualism, especially in children, leads to a capacious symbolic system, functioning as a marker of individuality, facilitating a sense of worldliness—of belonging to many lingual sites, and opening the doors to many worlds. But this has not been my experience of bilingualism, of retaining diasporic fluency in Polish and acquiring diasporic currency in English. Bilingualism, under current social conditions, produces, in my experience, an ongoing case of a split tongue, a divided identity, a light schizoid orientation to others, a slantwise queer feeling that I cannot repatriate into the economy of good feelings, happy feelings, or warm fuzzy feelings. In short, a loneliness.
This loneliness is attached to naming as well. The Canadian nation-state persistently partakes in settler colonial naming practices that misname, ignore, or seek to extinguish Indigenous languages. Anglo naming is prioritized and rendered at home in Canada, in direct correspondence to projects of killing Indigenous languages and marginalizing non-English and non-Western names and ways of speaking. Names that are not English are held to be “foreign,” “exotic,” and “unpronounceable.” When a name is rendered unpronounceable, it creates not only a distance between you and the people around you but also “a distance within you,” drawing on Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent reflections on language in In Other Words (2016). It is ironic that in striving to become “Canadian” in speech habits and name pronunciation as a diasporic person, immigrant, or refugee, you partake not only in distancing yourself from yourself, but also in trampling on the Indigenous languages and naming-systems that settler colonialism has meticulously sought to eradicate.
English—if only I knew which accent, which speech patterns, what phraseology, what lexical inclinations would lead me to feel at home with English. For the most part, I am fully absorbed by Canadian-American-anglo-settler-academic-queer language nuances, by the jargon of extensive educational exposure. In Toronto, where I lived for 5 years during grad school, rarely anyone thought I was “from somewhere”—whiteness affords this in many spaces. Yet even with twenty-five years of speaking English there are still those cases when a colleague corrects me or a romantic liaison strives to explain the most basic of English words to me. But for the most part, day-to-day life as an aspiring academic is smooth lingual sailing. It is the name, though, that always catches. It must be spelled, re-spelled, handled, enunciated, explained, identified, spoken and re-spoken so many times throughout the day. My patrilineal surname, “Przybyło,” can be translated as “to have come” or “the thing that has come” or “that which has arrived.” “Przybyło” can also mean the increase in quantity of something. Its many consonants stuck so awkwardly together from the perspective of English come together in one rustling swoop when spoken in Polish.
When I visit Poland, my name becomes most ordinary, most speakable. It is spoken effortlessly by anyone who handles it. It ignites my heart to think there is such a place where I can hear my name spoken. Most strangely, while my name travels home, my identity lags in this transfer. When I visit Poland, I become over the course of a nine-hour flight, not Polish but “Canadian.” My Polish, while fluent and mostly grammatical, is unplaceable in Poland: again I belong to nowhere. I speak a Polish lacking, one of migration, a Polish good by diasporic standards but not so by Polish standards. My hoard of nieces and nephews, all Canadian born and growing up in Canada, learned to speak diasporic Polish before speaking a word of English. They speak English with a Polish accent and Polish in an invented form. If they visit Poland they lose their “Polishness” in large measure since their various forms of baby disaporic-Polish are mostly incomprehensible to Polish-speakers in Poland. This makes me think that language is at heart not about communication but about loss and loneliness.
Polish is for me a language that flows through my syllabic sequencing, soars through my imagination, but fails to come to life in intersubjective exchange. Visiting Poland, and increasingly around my family, I have developed aphasia. Lahiri writes that the “mother tongue, paradoxically, [becomes] a foreign language, too” and this is indeed my experience of bilingualism—alienation from language. In fear of producing a bastardized, diasporicized Polish that will compromise me, sometimes I forget to speak. On some occasions, others speak for me, they borrow my split tongue and use it for me. Practiced aphasia has begun to seep into my English-speaking life as well and often it becomes less terrifying to not speak (in whatever language) than to speak and be misunderstood. Here I have a strong envy for the more loquacious, the more articulate, those friends of mine who do not seem to see fear, or loss, or longing, or loneliness, in language.
Over Christmas my mother and I watched bad-quality home videos that a Polish gentleman-friend of the family made when we first moved to Canada. There is one where my family takes the Canadian citizenship oath presided by a member of the mounted police. In a film shot shortly before that one, I speak in two languages woven together, mostly bad Polish lacking in vocabulary and with a Canadian accent. How did I develop a Canadian accent in Polish when I barely knew English? How is it possible to have accented speech in both of your mother tongues? My ten-year-old niece, born in Canada to Polish-speakers, continues to live out these great mysteries of bi-lingual loneliness. Recently singled out in her Canadian school for her “ugly [Polish] accent,” she asks me how long it takes to “lose” an accent.
Feminist queer scholar Gloria Anzaldúa has written of the relationship between language and identity. “So, if you want to really hurt me,” she writes, “talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. … Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” I have gifted myself with multiple names which have gathered over time in my attempts at easing the speaker’s burden: there is a legal Canadian name, a legal Polish name, a colloquial name, a gender-neutral name, and variations of these. I inhabit and deploy these names variously, though I have not designed a coherent system for where and when these names appear. Abena Busia reflects in Testimonies of Exile (1993) that “we speak the self in hybrid tongues to disempower or undo the conditions of our misnaming or unseeing.” Handling a name, naming oneself, is in this sense part of the bilingual quest to find yourself in and through language, to renegotiate the schizoid positions of diasporic bilingualism, to revisit questions of loneliness, and to make yourself a new person in a new lingual environment. I would also say that it is an unresolved and unresolvable quest.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series called Name Tags, about issues related to names and naming. You can find the original Call for Submissions here.
Ela is a Ruth Wynn Woodward Fellow in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University where she writes and teaches on a/sexuality, intersectional feminist media praxis, queer, feminist, and crip approaches to the body, and transnational approaches to gender and sexuality in Eastern European contexts. You can find her work online here. Ela ia also a Founding and Advisory co-editor of the journal Feral Feminisms.