Book review: Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self, by Julie Sedivy

September 7, 2021

It’s a truism that language is integral to identity. So when our relationship with it changes, complications quickly accrue: Do we become someone different in another tongue? Is that all down to culture and context, or is there something inherent in a language that affects who we feel ourselves to be? And what happens when we start our lives speaking one language but then switch to another?

These are among the questions explored, with heart and rigour, in Julie Sedivy’s new book, Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self (available October 2021 from Harvard University Press, who sent me a copy). Sedivy was born in the former Czechoslovakia and spoke only Czech until the age of two. At that point her family left the country, then the continent, and her linguistic environment was transformed.

Book cover has a colourful design on a black background, with the author's name and book subtitle in white script around the perimeter. Near the top, the word 'memory' appears in all caps, each letter a different colour: green, orange, blue, red, light green, yellow. A thick, squiggly, coloured line drops from each letter into a broad tangle in the centre, before disaggregating into the word 'speaks' (again, all caps, different colours) at the bottom.As a child in Canada, Sedivy was suddenly surrounded by English, heard it animate her new friends and role models, and felt compelled to adopt it. English ‘elbowed its predecessors aside’ and became the family language: ‘What could my parents do? They were outnumbered. Czech began its slow retreat from our daily life’. The consequences were not yet apparent to her; ‘the price of assimilation was invisible’.

Years later, after losing her father, Sedivy came to realize ‘how much I also mourned the silencing of Czech in my life’. Her Czech heritage had come to feel like a ‘vestigial organ’. She had lost access to the ‘stories and songs that articulate the values and norms you’ve absorbed without knowing they live in your cells’. She wrote Memory Speaks as part of an effort to ameliorate and understand that loss, exploring

why a language can wither in a person’s mind once it has taken root, what this decline looks like, and how the waning of language can take on a magnitude that spreads beyond personal pain to collective crisis.

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The impassable barrier of language

April 10, 2020

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline has a passage on the challenges (and opportunities) of using a second language. The narrator is giving a writing workshop in Athens and meets a woman who describes her experiences outside of English:

Book cover has a thick white border with the title in black all-caps at the top and the author's name at the bottom. Between them is a large photo of a conch shell stuck in a sandy beach, pointy bit down and its open side facing the viewer. The sand is pale brown, and the sea is light blue and blurry in the background. The shell is cream-coloured with brown bands and a deep pink interior.She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately,  impassable.

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The Old Ways and the old words

June 16, 2016

Find beauty; be still. —W.H. Murray

On a visit to Galway City Library last week I happened upon Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Hamish Hamilton, 2012), and promptly whisked it from the shelf. I had read Macfarlane’s The Wild Places a few months earlier and it’s already a highlight of my reading year.

Macfarlane is an English academic and author who writes about nature, travel, landscape and literature and how one influences or nourishes the other. The Old Ways takes pathways as its primary motif: the tracks we find and make across land and sea and how they signify and affect our relationship to place.

A few language-related excerpts follow. First, an entertaining note on the polyglottism of George Borrow, ‘the most charismatic of modern walker-writers’, who Macfarlane says ‘inspired the surge in path-following and old-way romance that occurred in mid-nineteenth-century Europe and America’:

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