Breaking English Open: On Privileging Sound Over Sense

It all began with a miniature crusade against italics. This crusade was not against all sorts of italics—though that previous usage does seem decidedly overwrought to me—but rather specifically targeted the practice of italicizing non-English-language words that appear in the midst of primarily English-language prose, así, azoy, heyk. Upon preliminary research for this essay, I discovered that this practice was established by none other than Roger Blitherbart, the notorious 20th-century eugenicist who was also a co-architect of the draconian Immigration Act of 1924.

Okay, that’s not precisely true. Roger Blitherbart, as far as I know, never existed (the hyperlink aforelayered on his name leads, advertently, to a google image of a toad; sorry), and if he did, I have no actual sourcing indicating that he had anything to do with either literary and typeset practices or the heinous, and very real immigration laws which shaped and continue to shape this country and world (the latter hyperlink is real and worth reading).

But back to the literary question, which is, always, a political one, too: Blitherbart isn’t a real fellow, and I wasn’t able to scrounge up a tweetable (X-able?) mic-drop bit of research that would forever tint this literary italicizing practice as problematic, anachronistic, thrumming with undercurrents of xenophobia and imperialistic bias. I don’t have the research, so I have to write on, and all I can write about, then, is my experience as a reader, in which the practice, indeed, often feels like a lot of those things.

When I come across a non-English word italicized and hunched over amidst a crowd of straight-backed proper English, my first thought is: “Unessential.” “Decorative.” “Skip over it.” I don’t speak Croatian, or Cambodian: why break my teeth over sounding out this word? While internet research did not lead me to any snarky research gold-mines as to where this practice started, it did demonstrate to me that I am not alone in this experience, and one of the gems I came across was the writer Daniel José Older’s delightful, embodied and en-costumed send-up of how this practice might look and sound.

At best, the word becomes a decoration. At worst, it is exotified, the flipside of which, of course, is that it is rendered inferior.

So, back to my little crusade (which, yoh, is a strange word for a writer yid to use in an essay that aspires toward an anti-colonialist literary ethos, but we’ll stick with it, for now, nu, multitudes, as Walt’ele would have it). In my first novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, the narrator, Jonathan, an American-Israeli, addresses his Palestinian friend, Laith, on the first page, saying:

I miss your eyes so much I can’t breathe right, habibi. Can I still call you that, “habibi,” my darling? Laith!

Maybe we’ll meet again, like Yossi and Mahmoud, in a city far away from here.

The novel, which centers around Jonathan’s relationship with Laith and his twin sister, Nimreen, orbits around themes of communication while perched upon the trash heap of history; language and languages stand at its core, and the book seeks to call into question the premise of otherness, which is the basis for an ideology of distance and indifference—those are their children starving, their children trapped under rubble, not ours—and which ideology, in turn, enables the catastrophic and, yes, even genocidal violence being carried out against Palestinians in Gaza as I write this.

Back to the text, then, for a moment; this began as a lighthearted approach to the topic, but it is also one that I think has serious, real-world weight. Let’s imagine that line, instead, reading as follows:

I miss your eyes so much I can’t breathe right, habibi.

Suddenly, instead of a tentative, yearning, perhaps overstepping effort to continue to address his friend with a word brimming with sweetness, with its repeated, pebble-like ‘b’s, its sandpaper opening ‘h,’ its springing ‘i’ after ‘i,’ the whole thing is rendered, at least in my reading, with an intolerable foreignness, otherness, distance. At best, the word becomes a decoration.

At worst, it is exotified, the flipside of which, of course, is that it is rendered inferior: festishization and dehumanization are close relatives. I don’t know if my novel succeeded in its efforts to chip away at internal apartheids, but I would go so far as to say that whole novel might have emerged spiritually dead-in-the-water had that first Arabic word been italicized. In looking back on early editorial exchanges with my editor, I came across the following conversation, regarding that word:


MRZ: I’d like to leave it not italicized. I just had a conversation a few days ago here at MacDowell with two other novelists about how italics are often an indication for us, as readers, ‘don’t read this part,’ and what I like about not italicizing the Arabic (and Hebrew) words throughout this book is that it can be a sort of nudge to the readers saying, “this word is no less important than the words you know, don’t skip over it.” It may not work with every reader, but I’d like to give it a shot, nonetheless.

Thank goodness, and thanks to writer colleagues who helped remind me that I wasn’t alone in this readerly mode, and thanks to writers residencies which open up space for these sorts of conversations, and thanks to my wonderful editor, that was all the discussion it took. From that point forward, all of the Arabic and Hebrew remained unitalicized, giving the reader the opportunity to at least sit with the sounds of habibi for a moment, before the translation appeared after the comma.

And it gets weirder from there. In my second novel, Before All the World, which is framed as a translation from Yiddish to English, or from jewish to american, as its rendered in the book, I took the practice even further, and when the translator, Charles, asks the manuscript’s author, Gittl, how she defines a person, on the book’s first page, she answers:

A thing made from maysehs and tayve and the small choices of each moment.

There, not only are the transliterated Yiddish words rendered unitalicized, but they are untranslated, as well. And what if, one might ask, the reader doesn’t know Yiddish? All to the good, I say, and perhaps even all to the better. Later in the book, there are moments in which the reader can glean that maysehs translates approximately to stories, and tayve to longing or lust or “urge and urge and urge,” as Charles seeks to translate the word by riffing off of philadelphiye’s famous feygele, Walt Whitman. But in these beginning moments, on this first page, readers who don’t know a word of Yiddish are invited to simply be with these sounds, the reaching ‘ay’ in the middle of each word, the sloping, shrugging final ‘eh,’ philadelphiye, amerike.

Here, I owe a debt of gratitude—and do we not all owe this debt of gratitude, at all times—to poetry, which reminds us, again and again, that words are not merely efficient utilitarian vehicles with which to convey approximate meaning to our various interlocutors—words are, perhaps primarily, sounds. They are clusters of consonants, scrapes and dips, they are honks and squawks and bellows of dismay and murmurs of pleasure. On the next first page of Sadness Is a White Bird (sometimes, a book gets to have a few first pages), I encountered a moment in which I had to choose between sense and sound. Here, Jonathan tells Laith:

My eyes glinted strangely in the glass of the base’s bathroom, yellow-green and nearly fearless.

I remember writing that line, and liking how it sounded, but then wondering to myself: “Glass… Is a glass a valid way to say mirror?” I googled that question, and returned with the assurance that it sure is, if you’re living in England in, say, the 1890s. My character is a 19-year-old living in contemporary Israel-Palestine, circa 2006. What, then, is a scribbler yid to do? If my aspiration is verisimilitude or “realism,” the word has to revert to mirror.

But I tried that, and was dismayed at that mud-thick triple-r, “mirror,” bogging the otherwise buoyant sentence down. The word “mirror,” to me, sounds like how some of my non-English speaking friends caricature the sound of American English: “rrrr rrrr rrrr rrrr.” “A rural juror looked in the mirror.”  So, in this early page, I privileged, once again, sound over sense, music over meaning. This happened sporadically, but consistently throughout the first book; by the time I set out to write Before All the World, this wasn’t just a sporadic happening, but an ethos that guided virtually every page of the book (which, when rendered in Word doc, always emerged delightsomely glowish with various red and blue lines):

And so yoh, Cricket’s.

On his first time at Cricket’s, Leyb stood only at the edges of the room, overwatching the men what inpiled there every shabbes evening in philadelphiye, and what seemed to Leyb not so much amerikanish or even men, but rather as a single sunwarmed river, yoh…

My primary influences, for this project, were, of course, Yiddish poets, and if there is any takeaway I long to be awaytaken from this piece, aside from the anti-italics polemic, it is for readers to read some of these extraordinary poets; whether or not said readers know a thing from Yiddish, these writers are, in my estimation, some of the great poets of the 20th century, and their work is almost entirely overlooked in most literary circles: Yankev Glatshteyn (Jacob Glatstein), Anna Margolin, Celia Dropkin, Moyshe Leyb Halpern, Rokhl Korn; as I wrote, these poets, alongside my own ancestors, chatted with me, cajoled me, winked at me, teased me stumbling tongue, encouraged me, pet my frightened shoulders. (As the narrator of the novel’s not-alive-anymore siblings often remind her: “not alone, never alone, o wa.”)

Here’s to writing different, broken, or, really, broken-open syntaxes without mockery, without apology, without shame.

But I also was deeply shaped in my work on project by a number of Irish authors, particularly James Joyce and Eimear McBride. Here, I’m going to go even further out of my literary depths (or maybe, more likely, I’ve been out of my depths for a while, now, and I’m just flapping my arms in the midst of a vastish sea) and posit a sort of political-lingustic theory: for Ireland, and the Irish people, English was the language of oppression, of subjugation, of erasure, of control.

Does it, then, not make sense (sense, sense—does it, then, not make music) that Irish writers would thrash against the bounds of the English language, would seek to break it open from within? Whether or not that theory has legs, I do want to highlight the exhilarating, astounding broken-open English of Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (a tip, for those who struggle with Joyce, or McBride, or any of these works: try reading it out loud, let the sound overtake the sense): 

Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train. Legs fair jigged from halfway there. Dairy Milk on this Stansted Express and cannot care for stray sludge splinters in the face of England go by. Bishop’s Stortford. Tottenham Hale. I could turn I could turn. I cannot. Too late for. London. Look. And a sky all shifts to brick. Working through its tunnels, now walking on its streets, a higher tide of people than I have ever seen and—any minute now—In. Goes. Me.

So, we might seek to break English open by weaving in other languages, as I sought to do with Yiddish, as many before have done with Spanish—Nina Marie Martínez comes to mind, in terms of both syntax and punctuation—and others, still, have done this from within English, uplifting and celebrating hegemonically scorned dialects, Zora Neale Hurston in the last century, Marlon James in this one, and, I’d argue, also Barbara Kingsolver, in her recent Demon Copperhead. The key, I think, is this:

All of these projects refuse, vividly and stubbornly, to mock their characters for their tongues. My great-grandparents were ashamed of their tongue, and with the downtrickle of generations, I came out sounding almost like a real American boy; a real rural juror, if you will. In the effort to celebrate a “broken” English, I continued the tradition of those authors who knew, deeply, intuitively, that brokenness is not a failure or a source of shame, but rather a gift, a relief, an avenue toward newness, freedom, aliveness, the wild strangeness of this world, and of art, one hundred thousand shards of shattered glass glinting in the sun like treasure.

When I first shared a version of this essay in a class at the Bennington Writing Seminars, I ended by encouraging everyone to write a short work of fiction in which there was not a single “correct” American English sentence—this could be done by weaving in other languages, of course, or it could by uplifting the syntaxes of any group whose speech is labeled as inferior. In any case, the other imperative was that there be no mockery in the piece.

One student teared up reading her piece in which her immigrant mother’s English syntax emerged sounding not silly or shameful, but rather stunning, different, full; another student who worked at a nursing home wondered what it would be like to try to write from the voice of a stroke victim. What would it be like if we were to celebrate, as fiction writers, our collective brokenness, to uplift and cherish the languages and syntaxes of all groups deemed inferior: immigrants, racialized minorities, differently educated communities, the ill, otherly abled, even that wildly dehumanized swath of our population which we claim to cherish, but so often deride and overlook as a source of wisdom and insight: children.

So, here’s to discontinuing the anachronistic practice of italicizing non-English words; here’s to privileging sound over sense, music over meaning, or, as the poet Issam Zineh put it to me, cohesion over comprehension; here’s to writing different, broken, or, really, broken-open syntaxes without mockery, without apology, without shame.

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