In “Language as the Homeland,” an online interview from The Common magazine, Zinzi Clemmons chats with memoirist and poet Eleanor Stanford about “poetic form, the importance of language, and ways to feel at home in the world.” Stanford says,

“I think writers always feel at least a little bit out of place wherever we are. (Or maybe that’s just me.) There is a quote by the poet Czeslaw Milosz that I thought about often when I was [living] in Cape Verde: ‘Language is the only homeland.’ I took (and continue to take) some sort of comfort in it.”

Indeed, Stanford communicates how language has contributed to her conception of home in “Geology Primer (Fogo, Cape Verde),” a piece from Issue 06 of The Common. Stanford provides a glossary of geological terms (including both “factual and anecdotal” definitions) demonstrating her attentiveness to the sounds of words, and the way in which language connects her to the physical environment. “Learning Kriolu [a Portuguese-African creole] and immersing myself in it was one of the main ways I began to relate to Cape Verdean culture,” she explains. “It is so fundamental to understanding the place and its people.” When defining the word “mantle,” for instance, Stanford contemplates how this language that “could not be written down” nonetheless links her to the landscape of the country she learned to call home. She writes:

mantle

ORIGIN: <Old French, mantel, “cloak,” “mantle,” “bedspread,” “cover”

1. Teresinha singing morna in a cloud of dust.

2. The region of the earth’s interior.

3. Rocky island where I turned twenty-three, where I learned to speak a language that could not be written down, where I pared myself to bone and sinew; lost and found, transported

4. between the crust and the core.

5. Maria Alice in her bright shawl of song, untranslatable melody

6. believed to consist of hot, dense silicate rocks.

For Stanford, language is a way to define home, a way to understand how she is related to the land and culture in which she finds herself. In the following three pieces from The Common Online, authors Emeka Ogboh, Jason Tucker, and Luana Monteiro discuss how language has impacted their sense of home in various ways.

 

1. Language Creates a Verbal Map

Just as Stanford finds “home” in the language and landscape of Cape Verde, Emeka Ogboh finds it in the everyday language and sounds of his native city, Lagos, Nigeria. In “Sound City,” Ogboh compiles audio recordings of bus conductors calling out routes in order to create a “verbal map” of the city. “I hear movement and poetry in the verbal maps,” Ogboh writes. For him, these maps “are the embodiment of the Lagos hustle, the non-stop, fast-paced, time-is-money mentality.” Ogboh shows how his home is defined by the human voices that make the city both familiar and distinct.

 

2. Storytelling’s Power of Identity

In “Here’s a Bedtime Story,” Jason Tucker uses storytelling to pass on his conceptions of home to his unborn daughter. For Tucker, language is essential in shaping the diverse identity of a child who has many different homes, raised “to feel owned by no particular region”. He hopes his Midwestern-born daughter will embrace the language of both her Northern and Southern parents: “May your first words be not ‘Mama’ and ‘Daddy’ and ‘princess’. Say ‘newspaper’. Say ‘Telecaster’. Say ‘whippoorwill’. Say ‘screwdriver’. Say ‘vote’.” Tucker’s bedtime story is a powerful reminder that the language we use shapes our experiences of the places to which we belong.

 

3. Fluency and Belonging

In “Bahia Has Its Jeito Pt. I,” Luana Monteiro relocates to her motherland, Brazil, after a twenty-year absence. She encourages her husband and daughter to “master Portuguese—a language I considered my own,” as she tries to convey the musical, poetic quality of the language. Yet, when a cab driver tries to guess her nationality based on her own broken Portuguese, Monteiro finds that having been born in Brazil is not enough to make her native country home. Language connects Monteiro to her place of birth, yet her lack of fluency keeps her from feeling like she truly belongs.


Image credit: ntr23 via flickr