Nation, Race and Language

This week, we explored a range of immigrant writers who embraced the English language or appropriated their mother tongue. In response, I was asked to start a poem with the lines “English is my mother tongue” and explore the meaning of this line in relation to my own experience of language. Although I don’t consider myself to be a particularly successful poet, this challenge struck a personal chord. My mother started her life in Australia as an Illegal immigrant, and as she spoke English as a second language; there were moments in our relationship that were lost in translation…

English is my mother tongue, to the avail of my strong-willed mother,
Who used to speak each sentence twice, in hope that I would learn
A language in which she expressed herself, a woman I might uncover.
And almost, almost, I grasped her voice, then life began to turn,
At school they favoured English first, the rest was of no concern.

To her mother also I cannot speak, my own family I have lost.
I was told their words don’t matter, English is what we want.
I keep tokens of her language, they smile when I shout “PROST”
Single words offer no reprieve, nor patronising ‘tricks’ I flaunt,
To the women I won’t understand, how much these words must taunt.

But I can feel each inflection, trust me, I know when I’m in trouble.
Although there are no words between us, we can understand each other,
But every now and then English creates distance and we struggle.
I’ll live my life without the words, those words I’ve lost, to tell my Mother,
To tell her that I know her, that I love her.

 

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My mother and I
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