Alfabet/Alphabet: A Memoir of a First Language. Palimpsest Press
I’m a bit late to this game, and at the time of my writing, there are already several reviews out of Sadiqa de Meijer’s Alfabet/Alphabet from the delightful gem that is Palimpsest Press. These reviews basically all discuss—and rightfully praise—the book’s careful analysis of language, multilingualism, and the distancing and disconnection that results from speaking English as a second language and from emigration from the place where one spent one’s childhood. The book has been called—by published and user reviews alike—a careful academic study, an exploration of complex questions, an analysis of the relationship between language and belonging, a powerful mediation, and a memoir. These are all accurate and true statements, and I’m not interested in critiquing them. I have, however, come to this book from a different angle, and even so, it has brought me the same joy as it has brought to these other reviewers. After all, we find what we come to books looking for, so often.
So, it is unsurprising, probably natural, that I, a staunch academic and avant-gardist who has only ever spoken English fluently, found in this book most of all a genre-busting experimentalism. This experimentalism, its pushing at the edges of genre, is not even in sheep’s clothing. It is quite clearly out there, laid bare and baring its experimental teeth. This book has several strengths. But its most impressive, for me, has to be its ability to sneak that poetic, experimental, genre-busting so cleverly and so cleanly into the guise of an immensely readable, accessible, and personal memoir. So successful is this move that the book won the Governor General’s Award for English non-fiction!
Look, for example, at how deftly Meijer moves from a scholarly speaking voice to intense, internal intimacy. In recounting a conversation with the speaker’s friend Sebastian, the speaker’s voice is astute and eloquent: “People who speak a language they learned after early childhood live in chronic abstraction” (85). This is contrasted starkly against the messy internal dialogue of a sentences-later reckoning with Sebastian, who says he disagrees with the statement, but becomes a vibrant, different person when speaking his first language, Polish, on the phone. The speaker says, not in dialogue, but internally, “You can argue, but I heard you, Sebastian. I heard the mazurka of your Polish voice.” The shift in tone is fascinating and shows how deftly de Meijer’s writing voice has learned to make these jumps, to move and shapeshift. This malleable speaking voice is part of why, at its core, this book is deeply formal, experimental, radical, and academic without ever really seeming to be so while you read.
This ability to shapeshift and adapt is also quite clearly tied in this book to a poetics of embodiment that is inextricable from the personal and the political. In this book, “[c]onsonants are land; vowels are water” (30), and then again not much later, “[c]onsonants are the body; vowels are breath” (36). It is a dual longing that the book keeps coming back to, a longing “for words and for landscape” (83) where the body is always already an inextricable mess of the two. This book is able to hold both at once, and this creates a satisfying inconsistency for me reading it as experimental and poetic literature. But, it feels accessible the whole time. Are there some weaker moments in the book? Sure. The “kennis/knowledge” section is confusing, and I’m not quite sure what it adds to the text overall; and there are times here and there where the work sags under the weight of too much theorization and not enough grounding in personal or experimental moments. But these are quite rare, and they are absolutely outweighed by the book’s overall strength and its uniqueness.
There are a few excellent standout segments of this book for me, most of which are the more experimental and formal chapters. One such standout moment is the chapter “ik/l,” which is exploratory and idiosyncratic. This chapter engages in a working-through of the alphabet in what, at first, seems like a quite academic and linguistic endeavour, but that results in the speaker trying to read the vowel sounds of crows only to find that “they seem to possess a vowel range beyond our alphabet” (48) or comparing the sound of the Dutch letter t to “the sound a cymbal makes when first struck” (49). This chapters contains some quite thoughtful and really engaging movement from the theoretical and general to the specific and personal, which makes it quite successful. Look for example at the incredibly endearing moment when the speaker recognizes how the use of the Dutch formal second-person pronoun U that is at once articulated “in millions of other households at that same hour” also “seemed to sanctify my Opa alone” (49-50). This moment captures both a childlike imagining of one’s own house at the centre of the universe—who among us did not do this as children?—and a careful meditation on language’s adaptability amidst its shared uniformity. We see this same movement captured beautifully again in “Mio/Mio.” “Nouns may lose specificity,” Meijer writes, “as we experience the world; bread is a rye slab, a rise flour loaf, a pale baguette, a slice from a bag; bread is money—but names burrow in the other direction; they progressively signify the close entities they represent” (71). Here Meijer discusses the English names that she learned upon arrival in Canada—names that at first “were empty labels, strangely alike, and I made an effort to give them narrative moorings” (72). As Meijer does so many times throughout this book, the form of the writing enacts its theoretical ideas, while the personal moments offer narrative moorings for readers making their way through the mess and multiplicity that is the book’s language.
My favourite section is “piano/piano,” though I am not sure I can fully enumerate why. Part of it is, absolutely, because of the poetic playfulness of the Dutch, the beautiful and childlike jumping from list to paragraph, from English to Dutch and back. Part of it is also how much this section reminds me of being an English speaker struggling in my youth to digest both my grandparents’ Italian and the Italian I learned in my language classes, different as they were. Both of these versions of Italian have receded terribly in my Anglophone adulthood, and this chapter especially made me regret it, made me unearth my old textbooks and think about taking up the language again, despite the fact that my grandfather isn’t here anymore to secretly pay me five dollars for each Italian phrase (Nonno, ti voglio bene).
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