Polyglossia – The Story Behind The Story


(Originally published in GigaNotoSaurus, March 2016 issue, edited by Rashida J. Smith)

Ironically, my longest published story so far got its genesis in a workshop on flash fiction in 2013. The exercise was to come up with a list of things that a main character may want most, and write an opening story setting up the character’s desire.

Being in a linguistics graduate program, and immersed in issues of language loss and preservation, among the things on my list were, “To get a language back.”

The opening lines I wrote for that exercise are very close to the eventual published opening of “Polyglossia.” Eret and Chigiri and the words of Mattaghelit appeared there. But I knew immediately that there was no way I would fit something as intricate and emotionally resonant as language revitalization into a 500-word flash fiction piece. Even through dealing with linguists who worked on it directly, I knew too much about it. The story would need to be longer. Much longer.

I set it in the world of Atsaldei and its capital Sunatnight that I had been trying to write a novel about since, well, I was fifteen years old. Over at least five novel rewrites, the world has changed tremendously from the very derivative little thing I had in Grade 10. Sunatnight is a complex, multicultural city, and it has room for many minority peoples and many tales. I already knew Lazhanor and some of the stars of the Sunatnight Opera House. Na-Melei was among them.

Her own background came to my mind when I attended a talk by NYU linguist Jeff Good about a linguistic situation in the Grassfields area of Cameroon, where there are half a dozen villages speaking entirely different languages, with multilingual citizens interacting, collaborating and marrying each other by the principle: “if you want to cooperate with someone, you speak their language.” In that situation, language and ethnic identity did not have much to do with each other at all, the way they are in cultures more heavily influenced by colonialism (North American and Siberian native languages) or a single dominant culture (e.g. Breton in France, Okinawan in Japan) where governments and religious groups made concentrated efforts to wipe some languages and associated ethnic identities out of existence, while others died out through neglect and shame.

The man who had lost his language met the woman with many languages.

Jeff Good’s talk also mentioned a song that the people in his area of study kept singing, even though what language it is in and the meaning of its lyrics have both been lost to history.

I sing. Some years ago, I decided to finally learn how to do it right, and have been working on classical singing technique ever since. Music and language are inextricably tied together in my mind. Songs matter.

When I picture Na-Melei, I see the mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges, who was alto soloist for my choir’s Messiah production in December 2013 when she was in the Chicago Lyric Opera young artists program. Her rendition of “Thou Art Gone Up On High” was haunting and unforgettable. I am nowhere near as good as Na-Melei, or Ms. Bridges, but I can tell something of how singing at that level feels.

Even so, “Polyglossia” was long and slow in climbing to publishable form, and was growing longer and longer the more I got into it. I barely crammed the basic plot under 10,000 words before I went to Clarion in 2014. There, I showed it to Clarion director Shelley Streeby, who is also a professor of ethnic studies in her day job and could give me feedback on some of the ethnic contact issues. Her verdict was, “Good, but needs to be longer.” She recommended I add more of Yira and Fai-rek’s perspective, and she was right.

A language is not recovered in a day, in a year, or even in a decade, but a story has to end somewhere. Although Eret’s current tale is done, there are still many more stories of Sunatnight I plan to tell, both after this episode and for many years before it. He may yet have more adventures, and Na-Melei, Lazhanor and Ve-Kesh certainly will.

Among the linguists and language consultants who do not know that their conversations helped me shape this story, I’d like to thank Daryl Baldwin, Ryan Bochnak, Amy Dahlstrom, Amy-Rose Deal, Lillian Dube, Katie Franich, Jeff Good, Lenore Grenoble, Zachary Hebert, Dorothea Hoffmann, Bobby Hsu, Robert Lewis, Lisa Matthewson, and Cherry Meyer. They are doing important work all over the globe to document rare and understudied languages and help their communities preserve a sense of identity rooted in their language and how it matters.