The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, pigment on paper, from the late-14th century كتاب البلهان Kitab al-Bulhan.
1. Language Is a ‘War Zone’: A Conversation With Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Rohit Inani, The Nation, 2018.
2. Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation [YouTube lecture], Dionne Brand, Barnard Center for Research on Women, 2017.
3. Dictee, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, 1982.
Eric PatelWhile reading Rohit Inani’s interview with Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The Nation1 last year, I was struck by a remark which suggests that if you are writing in English, or ensuring that literature is only made available in English, you are operating in the language of the colonizer, and thus, according to Thiong’o, “starving the imagination of a majority of people.” Lately it has been difficult to understand how and when I should continue to communicate in English. But why? The language associated with some of my earliest childhood memories is Gujarati, and even though I speak it regularly with my family, I never learned to read or write it. In high school I was confronted with the idea of how growing up in a bilingual home in the U.S. could become a marker of difference, not only of identity and culture, but of learning ability according to one of my teachers. At that time I was doing well in mathematics, but struggled with writing long form essays. My teacher suggested that this shortcoming could potentially be due to the Gujarati that spoke and switched with English in my family conversations. Could it be that if I had only used English, I would not be falling behind with words?
When out with friends, speaking Gujarati was often embarrassing back then, so even if pressed, I would not dare to mention or share that I could speak it. Once when I was on a road trip with a white friend, my mother called me; I began our conversation in English, but at some point I switched to Gujarati without thinking about it. After the call was over I sat there looking out the window for a moment without saying much. My friend in the driver seat then asked condescendingly, “Were you just speaking in tongues? Because it kinda sounded like you were using a weird jungle language from Africa.” Some of my mother’s closest friends and my father’s in-laws had immigrated to and lived in Kenya and Uganda for generations. Sometimes between Gujarati or English words I heard them use bits of Swahili, which although I could not fully understand, sounded cooler. I did not want to answer his question nor did I, partly out of anger, but also because I could not find the words to make him understand.
On a trip back to New York from the Netherlands in 2017, a friend of mine recommended watching a recording of a lecture that I missed at Barnard College between Claudia Rankine and Dionne Brandon2 on “the power and necessity of poetry in resisting the contemporary manifestations of racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy.” In Brandon’s introduction, she articulates what she tries to accomplish and contribute with words, how she does,“...not write toward anything called justice, but against tyranny and toward liberation...” She goes on:
“...Poetry is a libratory work for me; reflecting, intuiting and making sense of and undoing the times we live in; a kind of overwriting; a diacritic, a remedy and a repudiation of the narratives of non-being in this diaspora.
Poetry works at the core of where the world gets articulated and amplified: language. I am a poet who is and always has been attentive to politics; and I listen and monitor for the shifts in tenor and cadence and resonance of the languages of power; and I try to retrieve in my work that which is crushed under that language.
The monetizing of every square meter of air, water and land, the triumph of capitalism has given rise to what is now called populism, but what is in fact fascism; the inability to conceive of the sharing of the world; and the demonizing and casting out of people who are blamed for being in the world. I have to say that it is not that I have not lived in this before; it is not that this affect does not follow or hover. To me, black people in the west have always lived under the conditions of fascism. It is that in this particular moment there is an acute peak in the instantiation of fascism...”
Inspired by Brandon’s profound observations on the dark, supernatural times that we live in, the three text pieces which follow draw upon djinns (the invisible, mythological shapeshifting creatures that are neither angel nor demon) as well as the struggle to describe with words the overwhelming number of racial injustices that continue to erupt around us. With reference to the polyphony of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, I encrypted the contents of each text chapter. To decrypt or decode the messages, use the standard instructions given with the ‘rotate by x number of places’ substitution cipher. As an example, the ending fragment ‘vprnhohvv iluh’ can be decoded to the starting fragment ‘smokeless fire’ if you start by replacing each letter with the 3rd letter before it in the English alphabet; the ‘v’ becomes ’s’, the ‘p’ becomes ‘m’ the ‘r’ becomes ‘o’, the ’n’ becomes ‘k’, the ‘h’ becomes ‘e’ to form ‘smoke’ and so on. The entirety of each chapter has its own cipher and it is left up to the reader to determine what rotation number should be used (e.g. replace with 1st letter before, 2nd letter before, etc.)
By experiencing what it is like to ‘work in the dark’, I want others to consider if the language(s) of one’s upbringing or education can be considered anathema or even tyrannical to one’s culture. And if so, can obfuscation and subversion of a language’s form, meaning and context create understanding rather than destroy it? Is now the time to embrace those languages or say good-bye to them? As Hak Kyung Cha writes3, ‘...It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech, the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say...”
Encrypted Text 1
Encrypted Text 2
Encrypted Text 3
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