Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 1

Symposium: Beyond Borders


Language and the Borders of Identity in “The Language Sheath”

Yen Ooi


Chinese science fiction written by both writers from Chinese-speaking nations and Chinese diaspora communities has a shared interest in the anxieties of identity. As I write this paper (originally as a presentation for the London Science Fiction Research Community—LSFRC’s Beyond Borders Conference in September 2020), I find myself yet again negotiating personal experiences with critical research while reflecting through the literature. Jiayang Fan, in her personal history piece published in the New Yorker titled “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda” describes this anxiety clearly when she asks, “For what is an immigrant but a mind mired in contradictions and doublings, stranded in unresolved splits of the self?” Couple this with the sensitivities of language, as demonstrated in Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous quote, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language,” (401) we discover a ripe and volatile environment for the expression of identity through language.

I chose the short story “The Language Sheath” by Regina Kanyu Wang (2020), translated by Emily Jin and Wang herself, because of how strongly it resonated with me. When I first read it, I wondered how Wang, a writer who lived in Shanghai, would know of a diaspora’s relationship with language so well. I felt silly when I learnt that this experience isn’t unique to diasporas. It is an experience of colonization through language that happened, and is still happening everywhere.

“The Language Sheath” is a story about Ilsa and her son Yakk, and their complicated relationship that’s made more problematic by them having different first languages. In the story, Ilsa is a linguist, specializing in Kemorean, a fictional language in the fictional country of Kemor, and she’s hired by a language-technology company called Babel to create and record a corpus of spoken Kamorean for their translation machine that uses an output filter described as a ‘language sheath.’ Ilsa’s dream is for Yakk to embrace being Kemorean and to speak Kemorean well, but Yakk, like every teenager, wants to do what trend dictates—he wants to speak English and embrace all that is modern and cool.

My first languages were English, Malay, Hokkien (on my paternal side), and Hakka (on my maternal side). Growing up in Malaysia, it is compulsory to learn English, something that was inherited from our colonial past, and Malay is the national language. Because Malaysia’s demographics are multicultural, it is common for Malaysians to speak a third or fourth language from their family. Like Ilsa, my parents wanted me to be able to use their languages, but because Mandarin is the centralized language for China, they wanted me to speak that too, and so I learnt it. But I struggled to enjoy Mandarin because it felt forced, and was of the least use to me. In the end, English became my main language. Though I speak some Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin, I can barely read and write in Chinese.

Like Yakk’s parents, my parents had a big decision to make when it came to choosing my school and considering what effect it might have on my language. In the story, Ilsa holds a grudge with her ex-husband when she tells the reader: “Take my son, Yakk. His father sent him to an international school in early childhood, and even though he transferred to a Kemorean public school later at my insistence, his Kemorean is execrable. He can only construct simple sentences and commits solecisms all the time. He even speaks with an odd accent, as though he weren’t a native speaker. It’s a terrible disappointment.” Though my parents don’t see my basic Mandarin as a disappointment, what is highlighted here is the difficulty families face when parent and child use different languages.

My lack of Chinese language skills sometimes feels to me like a betrayal to my parents, no matter how much I tell myself that it isn’t. Like the relationship between my identity and my language, I place the same values to my parents’ languages and their identity. In a particularly personal section in her essay, Fan confesses that “It is reductive to compare a mother with a motherland, but…”. And I paraphrase this for my point, that it is reductive to compare a mother with a mother tongue, but the intricate and intense relationship that one has with their parents is precisely based on communications, which suggests that a difference in language would create problems. Ilsa’s description of Yakk above shows her disconnect with him because of their languages, and as readers, we can accept and possibly empathize that this difference, among other things, has caused their relationship to break down.

Though we know through the study of linguistics that languages continuously change with society, the loss of a language creates what is known as illocutionary silencing: “When a language disappears, past and present speakers lose the ability to realize a range of speech acts that can only be realized in that language. With that ability, speakers lose something in which they have a fundamental interest: their standing as fully empowered members of a linguistic community”. (Nowak, 831) Our desire to protect a language here stems from our need to maintain our position within a community—whether for cultural heritage or lineage purposes—that in turn, establishes our identity. This places an intangible value on the language itself.

The Language Conservancy, tracking 7,000 languages in use today, say that “about 2,900 or 41% are endangered” and that “about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.” When language is lost, it is easy to blame the older generation for not being better protectors, but the processes of modernization, of economic growth and colonialism are like natural forces against maintaining a pure language. In the story, Ilsa explains: “More than a decade ago, the Kemorean government started to heavily promote English education in order to boost economic development and international trade. Kemor’s generous policy on foreign investment brought an influx of foreigners to the country.” The drive for economic growth in the story became the main perpetrator for the fall of the Kemorean language. And in the story’s world, English still represents the world lingua franca, as the socio-economic colonialist.

Rey Chow understands that those who are colonized start to see their own language and culture as being relegated. She proposes three levels of mimeticism working in an overlapping, overdetermined manner at all times. The first level has to do with the imperative created by the colonizer or imperialist. The values are hierarchically determined and the colonized, her language, and her culture are thus relegated to the position of the inferior, improper copy. “Condemned to a permanent inferiority complex, the colonized subject must nonetheless try, in envy, to become that from which she has been excluded in an a priori manner. She is always a bad copy, yet even as she continues to be debased, she has no choice but to continue to mimic. She is damned if she tries; she is damned if she doesn’t”. (104)

In speaking with Wang about her story, I understood that she was coming from a similar place as me. Mandarin, though the national language, isn’t her mother tongue, which is Shanghainese. In trying to understand China and its people, because of its seemingly long and unbroken history, there is little concern about colonialism or imperialism. Yet, the various governments through its history, have brought on colonializing impact on its people through the management and development of the national language. From the standardization to Mandarin, to the processes of unification of the written language, to the adoption of the Beijing dialect as standard, it has been in progress for a long time, and we are still seeing minority languages, dialects, and topolects being affected today. There are many layers to this power struggle between languages, but the problem posed is the borders the inheritance of language alludes to that shapes our identities.

In the story, Ilsa and Yakk have different relationships to both Kemorean and English. Ilsa feels that she has to protect Kemorean so it doesn’t continue its path to decline. She believes that “A true Kemorean should speak nothing but the Kemorean language.” Yakk, however, did well with English. Though this was mostly due to his father’s decision to put him in an international school where English became his first language, he also believed that English was the more powerful language, which opened up international opportunities. This reminds us of the position that English already holds in our world today as the lingua franca. We learn in the story that “After transferring to the public school, [Yakk] lost touch with his old friends from the international school. Only David and William met up with him occasionally. They gave him English books and told him which of their old classmates had been admitted to top universities in other countries.” This cements the belief that English brings opportunities that Kemorean cannot.

The colonized here is Yakk, who is now “seen in terms of a desire to be white,” what Chow explains that is felt “concurrently with the shame accompanying the inferior position to which she has been socially assigned.” Ilsa fights Yakk because she sees him to have a desire to be not-Kemorean and she equates this to the shame—a shame in losing his Kemorean heritage, which accompanies his inferior position that she has now socially assigned to him. And the more Ilsa pushes Yakk, the more his position as the colonized is strengthened. Yakk starts to vacillate between Kemorean and English because of the stresses caused by Ilsa, which gives his identity plurality and multiplicity, the characteristics that Chow describes in the second level of mimeticism. This is a complicated position for the colonized as he learns to love and hate, yearn and reject multiple reflections of himself, much like the earlier quote from Fan that describes the immigrant as “stranded in unresolved splits of the self.”

The black and white, which is the Kemorean and English in the story, is now mutually constituted. And in the story, Ilsa affirms this through allocating good characteristics to Kemoreans and bad characteristics to foreigners. The crux of this is experienced when Yakk returns home one day to see his mother crying. As he hugged her, he whispered, “Don’t cry, Mom,” in English and Ilsa just stared at him in response. And it was after he said it again in Kemorean that Ilsa hugged him back, tighter. This scene highlights the fact that Yakk is aware that speaking in Kemorean appeases his mother. And Ilsa in turn believes that if Yakk continues on his English path, she will lose him forever. Near the peak of the story, Yakk has a recurring nightmare where he is surrounded by circles of people who are repeating his mother’s lines over and over, while he tries to break away to no avail. “Yakk, listen to me, you must respect Kemorean. You have to speak your mother tongue well. This is about honoring your culture…”

Yakk later learns that Babel successfully creates the language sheath to both translate and perfect Kemorean. So, whether a speaker uses a different language or is just speaking in broken Kemorean, the sheath will be able to transmit only “Standard Model Kemorean output.” He reacts by asking his mother, “Everyone’s words, you tamper?” And Ilsa replies: “Not tampering, but embellishment. What I have provided is only a sheath. The content of the speech won’t change. The sheath only makes the words more elegant and pleasant to the ear.” In this scene, with Yakk’s rudimentary question and Ilsa’s sophisticated response, we reach the coda that brings us to Chow’s final point on mimeticism of the colonized.

The colonized now no longer replicates the white man or his culture but rather an image, a stereotyped view of the ethnic. In the story, Ilsa becomes the person who creates this stereotype through the creation of the Kemorean language sheath. Not only will there be Standard Model Kemorean to be heard with the sheath, it will be hers. Though Ilsa’s determination in preserving Kemorean can be seen as a strength, especially in thinking that she is fighting the colonization of their language, what she doesn’t see is that her actions endorse and legitimize the colonizer’s campaign.

At the end, “The man from Babel introduced himself as Hanson, the executive in charge of the Kemorean Project. He spoke to Yakk in English and shook his hand like an adult. Yakk didn’t like him, though. Mother’s condition was Babel’s fault.” Hanson is seen as a saviour of Kemorean in Ilsa’s eyes. She puts him and the company and its tech on the pedestal. She gives them the power to take and own Kemorean, to be packaged and sold, to be stereotyped. In Yakk’s meeting with Hanson, she affirms this by asking Yakk, “Did you thank Mr. Hanson? He’s been so helpful to us.”

Though Hanson isn’t a main protagonist in the story, he is the representation of the colonizing culture, clearly defined by Chow in The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. “The white subject who nowadays endeavors to compensate for the historical “wrong” of being white by taking on politically correct agendas (such as desegregation) and thus distancing himself from his own ethnic history, is seldom if ever accused of being disloyal to his culture; more often than not, he tends to be applauded for being politically progressive and morally superior.”

However, Chow also reveals that “When it comes to nonwhite peoples doing exactly the same thing, however—that is, becoming sympathetic to or identified with cultures other than their own—we get a drastically different kind of evaluation”. (117) This can be clearly seen in Ilsa’s reactions when Yakk expresses his preference for English. She cannot identify the value of the culture that English brings at all, or a culture of hybridity. To Ilsa, English should remain a second language, a tool for communication and business only. “Kemoreans speak much better English than foreigners speak Kemorean. From my perspective, this isn’t right. Foreigners are coming to Kemor, so why should Kemoreans learn their language instead?”

If we accept that language defines our identities, then what can we—who are working with the colonizer’s language—do to move on? What can we learn from this? Chow’s words ring of truth when she says, “What defines diasporic realities, paradoxically, is what cannot be unified”. (130) To allow us to study the convoluted relationship between an immigrant, a diaspora, or the colonized and their languages, we need to first accept that it is and will always be in a state of flux, or as Kyoko Murakami describes in her study on the liminality of language, that in analyzing the self, it is “not as a static being but “becoming”. (31) Perhaps then, we might be able to accept the liminal position languages hold that simultaneously represents a culture, yet invites assimilation with other cultures and languages, like a plant that is part epiphyte and part parasite. 

WORKS CITED

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, ed. Denis Lynn Daly Heyck. New York: Routledge, 1994. pp 401-402.

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic & The Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press, 2002.

Bennett, Jane. Influx and Efflux: Writing up with Walt Whitman. Duke University Press, 2020.

Fan, Jiayang, ‘How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda.” The New Yorker, 7 September 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/14/how-my-mother-and-i-became-chinese-propaganda. Accessed 27 November 2020

Murakami, Kyoko. “Liminality in Language Use: Some Thoughts on Interactional Analysis from a Dialogical Perspective.” Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, vol. 44, 2010. pp 30-38.

Nowak, Ethan. “Language Loss and Illocutionary Silencing.” Mind, Vol. 120, Issue 515, July 2020. https://academic.oup.com/mind/article/129/515/831/5573258. Accessed 1 December 2020.

Pandell, Lexi. “WIRED Book Club: Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better than the Original?” Wired, 6 October 2016. http://www.wired.com/2016/10/wired-book-club-ken-liu-interview/.

The Language Conservancy, “Language Loss.” https://languageconservancy.org/language-loss/ Accessed 2 December 2020.

Wang, Regina Kanyu. Jin, Emily and Wang, Regina Kanyu (trans.) “The Language Sheath.” Clarkesworld, Hugo Award-winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine. Issue 164, May 2020. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wang_05_20/ Accessed 19 November 2020.


Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.

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