The Poetry Project

On The Autobiography of a Language: Essays and Stories by Mirene Arsanios

Alisha Mascarenhas

I begin reading Mirene Arsanios’s The Autobiography of a Language at dawn, seated at a window at LaGuardia airport. I am waiting with an espresso and a papery croissant to board my flight to Montreal, where I previously lived for six years. This also happens to be where the author situates some of the first chronicles of her coming into a multifaceted, transnational learning to be in language.

No, I begin in 2018 when, hosted by e-flux journal, Mirene reads from her “E autobiography di un idioma” in a dark upper floor room in Lower Manhattan. I am alone, sipping chilled white wine from an elegant plastic cup. I am immediately seduced by the poolside scene, and the dry, ironic tone of the author’s voice as she tells the story of the embodiment of a language, “centuries old and… pregnant for the past 20 years.” I have been in New York less than a year, and Mirene is a teacher, mentor, and intellectual crush who I occasionally run into in Bed-Stuy, where we both lived at the time.

This reading, and the way she brought this emergent text to life with urgency and a felt texture of reality, remains distinct in my memory. The humor that carries Mirene’s generous kindness and subtle wit are alive in her person as they are in her writing. Nothing is ever purely intellectual, and that is such a relief. Mirene and I met when she visited a class I was taking on the poetry of Etel Adnan. The teacher, Sarah Riggs, invited Mirene to come speak with us because of her aunt’s friendship with Etel. She spoke not only of the poet’s mystical and bewildered delight, but of her dedicated and rigorous militancy. I hadn’t considered Etel in this way before then. Mirene was quietly raising a challenge: a swerve to the current pulse of conversation. She has continued to do so on many other occasions where I have encountered her thinking. The Autobiography of a Language is a challenge charged with care, in all of its complexities and barest necessity.

The Autobiography of a Language is not an argument. Or if it is, you never have the sense, reader, of being argued with. Instead, you are raised to the challenge of its terms: a swerve, perhaps, to the current pulse of your thinking. As you read, the author incites you to an awareness of the composition of the book itself, the difficulty with language inherent to the process. She brings immediate attention to the many voices and technological mechanisms that police, reduce, and standardize the meaning a language is making. The way that autocorrect disrupts the structure of a sentence forming outside the terms of what has been authoritatively determined as correct. In what appears to be an act of tiny technological defiance, Microsoft Word has just spontaneously re-formatted my script to italics. A slant. I revert it to the upright posture of authorial certainty, centrality: this being the primary text. The author has taught me to rest in the pause of these adjustments; to notice the mechanism of writing, the tool I am using, its authority, its influence, its obdurate reinforcement of the right way to write. I can only type in one language at a time without a sea of red scribbles.

Through her own study of origins, the author makes evident the impossibility of pinning her to any singular “mother tongue.” Guiding us through childhood memories of the linguistic—which is cultural, which is national, which is familial shaping of subjectivity—she offers herself as a platform by which we may examine many forces and affinities: cultural, national, familial, that shape a person, the languages of a person. Spanish, French, Arabic, Papiamentu: the languages that came to compose the person of this author are tracked, traced, followed through matrilineal, patriarchal and other, more diffuse relational histories. Friendships, sibling ties and conflicts, nationalist dis/identifications; teachers, tutors, parents, aunts, uncles, a childhood friend, enter the continuously unfolding scenes.

“Mother tongues,” writes Arsanios, “imply a process of natural acquisition, an (un) accumulation founded on (riba) the repetition of syntactical gestures, but the link between mother and tongues isn’t as linear as it (e) may (mei) seem. It is circuitous and (í) hot and (í) cold.” Her study of mother tongues traces her own language acquisition by way of her own mother and matrilineal grandmother. Through a study of familial histories and resultant alliances, Arsanios shows us the fractured and diffuse nature of what a family really is when you start to look at all the places where the nucleus comes apart. With this book we are gifted the perspective and skill of someone whose attention has been devoted to an examination of what makes up a person’s language when monolingualism is out of the question. This is a subject both frayed and discerning, as the author turns around and unravels her own questions: a “permanent expatriate, dilettante in the social-medical establishment, and connoisseur only of the first person.”

Before you start to think that this autobiography restricts itself to the personal life of the author, know now that it goes so much further. Cutting through the chronological order of the genre with stories—often bizarre, feminized embodiments of language—brings this book out of the personal (where it never rested comfortably to begin with), and even out of the political (where it drives with studied precision), and into the realm of symbolic surreality. I add “surreality” to the Microsoft Word dictionary, in case I need to use it again.

Mirene’s writing is always personal, never strictly individual. The mothering role in subject formation and language learning, in particular, refuses to be relegated to biological family. The author also finds mothers in hospital lobbies and a (perhaps) fictional passenger ship. Women in public spaces peer with open scrutiny, maybe care, at the young girl characters in their midst. These public mothers also serve as figures for the subject to repel against, to refuse. Language itself is embodied in characters, scenes, stories, situations that are uncanny, dreamy, at times grotesquely visceral. The texture of the book keeps changing. Where are we. Whose story is this now. Where does she come from. Who are her teachers. We are led to piece together the biographical with the fictional, not to arrive at any coherent understanding, but instead to grapple with the unwieldy, dirty, messy complicated realities of being in language.

Mirene wrote The Autobiography of a Language as her father was dying in a hospital in Lebanon. This was a moment, she writes, that “preceded the onset of one of the worst political and economic crises Lebanon has ever experienced.” Through her narrative, Mirene examines what hospital care looks like in this context. Describing the nature of her exchanges with her father’s nurse, she articulates how “[c]are is perversely ambivalent because it conflates a transaction with an expression of love.” Mirene understands that the exchanges she experiences with this nurse whose labor is keeping her father alive are systemically pre-determined. Their relationship is figured into histories of state power through a broader recognition of the ways in which social classes are formed. “Through a system of interdependence,” she writes, “the relentless exploitation of a group of people allow[s] for another group to live more sheltered lives.” It’s all about language, but it’s never only about language, in the way that once you start to crack that open, lifetimes spill out: fragmented histories of the conditions of a country’s political state determine the kinds of relations that can form there.

Amid much unforeclosed questioning, examined experience leads the author to make certain declarations with confidence. About her father, she writes, “He loves me but his allegiance toward the conventions of his culture is stronger than the expression of his feelings.” This book is solid with grief, urgent with questions of how to hold the complexities of inheritances both chosen and inadvertently received. What have we absorbed, and whose stories do we enact with our words? “I also want to know,” writes the author, “why this language? … It is incidental and life is made of circumstances, outcomes of unruly trajectories.”

#271 – Winter 2023