12 July 2014

A conversation with Marlon Ariyasinghe about gates and gatekeepers

There was a rare literary event at the University of Peradeniya about four years ago. Dubbed ‘SLAM 2010’, it consisted of writers reading from published, to-be-published and perhaps ‘unpublishable’ work and a couple of panel discussions, one on ‘post-war literature’ and one on the publishing industry.  Vihanga Perera, poet, novelist, academic and event-organizer, quipped that the proceedings would have given me enough material for 30 articles.  A few, I responded. 

There are a lot of things to say but I shall leave event-review for another day.  I will limit comment here to a thought-provoking poem read by Marlon Ariyasinghe, who was classed as a ‘budding poet’ in what was possibly a careless moment when titling the programme.  Among the six ‘budding’ poets featured were 3 who have published collections and three whose work was by no means inferior to the ‘non-budding’ or ‘budded and flowered/flowering’ writers.  

Marlon read from a collection that’s going to be published in January, titled ‘froteztology’.  The ‘word’ comes from the poem so here goes:

I is wanting to Frotezt

I is wanting to frotezt,
Againzt theeze mad men
Who appear radically
But think and live ideally 
And strain us linguistically
I is very worry
“To think that thinking men
Should think so wrongly”

Imagination is stunted
Creativity: not allowed!
We are brainwashed out of our
Vulgar un-linguistic ways
And reformed or forced to reform
To be radicals with no faze

Say special with a IS
And face with a Z
Protest with a F
And F*** with a P
Say it proudly.

So puck opp n let we be.

Ok, the asterisks were inserted by me and that has nothing to do with any issue I may have with the content of the poem; just editorial necessity that is far less pernicious than the straight-jacketing the poet refers to, especially given the fact that the restrictions come, according to him, from self-appointed authorities on language-liberation. 

This is a poem that need to be read out loud to capture the play on the politics of language standard, for example those surrounding the ‘o’ sound, i.e. the ‘Yakko-O’ (as opposed to the ‘Snooty-O’).  Print doesn’t do it and apologies on this account.  I had a question, which I asked then: ‘Isn’t it because you can say ‘f*** off’ that you can say ‘puck opp’?  Marlon conceded that there was some logic in my proposition. 

We had a conversation over email subsequently which might illustrate some of the issues pertaining to language standards and I believe reproducing the gist would be better (and perhaps more entertaining) than commentary.  I just asked him to send me the poem and he said, ‘This poem is aimed at those at the university who promote academic writing but at the same time say that we need to broaden linguistic barriers.’  Marlon is not a big fan of ‘English Our Way’, by the way. 

I responded, ‘Those who rubbish language standards don't say puck-orp  and don't use such 'language' when they themselves write. They only use it in the dialogues they insert, though, and this only affirms language hierarchies.’  
Marlon agreed: ‘Exactly.  They only criticize it in theory and they themselves speak in an RP accent (RP, he told me later, was ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘Received Pronunciation’). They may as you say bend language boundaries in speech, but this is also a "made-up" effort.’  He pointed out that it is fashionable to say there’s nothing wrong in bending, but that in reality such bending-advocates do not dream of doing it, especially in writing.

I tossed my two-cents’ worth.

‘I think that language standards don't have any defensible theoretical foundation.  Having said that I am acutely aware, as you are, that it is a class instrument that is mercilessly employed.  We can take one of two approaches. We can say 'f*** it, it is not ours' or we can learn it so that we can meet sword with sword and not butter-knife.  It's a simple mechanism taken from the realities of combat.’

I think there are 4 categories of people who talk about this issue.  There are the puritans, who think there’s only one family of Englishes, the RP Family. There are the sour-grapers, who dismiss English as para bhashawa (foreign language), tag it to the colonial enterprise and all kinds of discriminations and marginalizations consequent to it and advocate a ‘Mother Tongue Only’ approach to language.  That’s a dying breed these days as more and more people realize the disservice that S.W.R.D. Bandaranyaike did to those who were not RP-privileged.  Then there are those who Marlon takes issue with, that is, the class of academics/writers who promote anything-goes English as a progressive and even anti-colonial or anti-establishment instrument but are suspiciously reluctant to put those words where there mouths are, literally and metaphorically.  Then there are those who take cognizance of the politics pertaining to language, language standards as well as the relevant hierarchies, especially the hands-off aspect of promoting Yakkho-English in order to keep the riff-raff off their ‘traditional homeland’ called Snooty-English.  

It is not clear in the poem where Marlon stands, the third or the fourth of the above categories or in a fifth, perhaps, i.e. located somewhere between the two.  I told him I was of the view that I feel the third category considers people like Vihanga Perera a threat because they (those like Vihanga) know this standard business is crap but are not lacking in weapons of any ‘standard’-class, from the supiri-snooty to the yakma-yakkho.   

Marlon located himself: ‘The only way to criticize or even break the standard is to know the standard (you have to know your enemy). Mispronunciation and bad grammar are "radical" only when we know the correct standard.’  He still had a question, and one which I had too: ‘But don't you think that once we learn and use the standard we have already lost the battle. Since knowing it means that we are a part of it; that we ourselves become one of those "gate keepers". This is my dilemma. What do you think?  Is there any way out of this predicament?  To say fuck the standard and not learn it will only be a disadvantage because we will not be taken seriously. The second approach makes us a part of the system. 

‘Mispronunciation and bad grammar are “radical” only when we know the standard’.  A great line, I thought.  Here’s my response: ‘We can choose to be gatekeepers or we can be gate-openers; make sure we do everything possible to erase the gate, i.e irrelevance the gate.  It has to be conscious.  We got to pick and choose method and hope like hell we get it right, given that our ignorance is infinite.’ 

I think there’s a radical politics in English ‘Standarding’ and that what passes off as ‘radical’ right now is complicit in the elite project, i.e. the entrenching of Snooty-English.  I think those who organized ‘SLAM 2010’ have got it right.  The poetry that was read, Marlon’s ‘I is wanting to Frotezt’ was not the only poem that consciously articulated this radicalism, bodes well for an informed intervention in this regard.  Something good to look forwards to in the little dingy backroom of the literature archives of Sri Lanka where Englishes languish, I felt. 

And since Marlon brought up the terms ‘gate-keeper’, the following would be a good puck-opp flourish to end this comment.  Eric Alterman a professor of English and journalism at the City University of New York, writing about Wikileaks disclosures (‘Do you want to know a (top) secret?’) and claiming that mainstream editors and reporters may be forgiven for wondering just how long they can remain central (in dramas such as the one generated by the revelations), asks, ‘when the gate’s been toppled, how long does the keeper keep a job?’

It is not about the gatekeeper. It is about the gate.  Maybe.  Let’s meditate on this.

*This was published in the Sunday Observer on December 2010