In residence: Monolingual Shame

Jay Bernard

In their work, which is at once multimedial, critical of society and queer, Jay Bernard combines factual history with fiction and explores the most diverse topics, from civil rights to sexuality. An example of this is the poetic performance work Surge: Side A, about the ‘New Cross Fire’ in South London that killed 13 young black people in 1981. The cause was probably arson, but the fire received little attention from the police and the media. Bernard dived into the archives, turned the material into poetry and in doing so gave the victims a voice. The result is a fierce indictment of the horror of racist indifference. Surge: Side A won the Ted Hughes Award in 2018.

During their writing residency at Passa Porta in July 2020, Jay found the time to work on new material but also started to reflect on their own nonobvious monolinguism as a British post-Brexit citizen with Jamaican roots, especially when confronted with the many broken multilingualisms on ‘the Continent’.

Discipline of desire begins in the mouth
Nisha Ramayya

This time Europe feels different. The day the borders open after being closed due to the pandemic, I arrive in Brussels feeling conflicted. I am here for a writing residency, but I am also staking the place out in a way I never have before. Could I live here? Would I? I have extra documents in my bag in case I am stopped, but also because I am thinking about settling in Europe to retain the rights Brexit took away. I am glad to be out of London, out of the house in which I have spent the past three months of lockdown, but I am more anxious about passport checks and I am acutely conscious that I am here on borrowed time – that in a few short months I will no longer have the right to live and work here.

Closer to the Edge

After years of talking about the Windrush generation, about migration in Britain, I think the tides are turning and I am having to make some decisions about migrating myself. The broad, cold sea is rearing up from my memories of books and TV shows, and is becoming real. I don’t feel immediately in danger: I am not in the shoes of refugees who have fled with nothing, I am not going to be persecuted for my political opinion, I am not going to be thrown into a detention centre or deported. Still, I have an instinctive sense of being closer to the edge of something that was once central to my identity, even if I was only ever European in a culturally fractured, legal kind of way. This instinctive tension feels old, familiar, and I realise I am feeling what my grandparents and parents felt and transmitted to me: that thing of being a familiar stranger, of having met this particular unknown before. We in Britain have made it a point to remember the migrants who arrived from all corners of the empire, and to remember them with pride. Nonetheless, I am afraid of the immigrant experience.

The Border Within

One of my favourite words is isogloss. It’s a line on a map indicating an area with a distinctive linguistic feature, or the spatial point at which language changes. Part of the reason travelling by train is better than travelling by plane is that you can feel the bumps as you cross the border, as you cross that line from one language to another. The Eurostar had to be dug, it had to be scooped out from under the English Channel, then it had to come up for air in Europe.

Marvelling at the fact that I can reach Brussels in less time than it takes to reach Scotland, I feel my throat closing and my lips tightening, my body language moving from head-which-receives-information-and-responds-accordingly to body-that-knows-what-is-being-communicated-because-of-the-context.

And it’s at this point that I begin to feel a mixture of recognition and shame: I recognise this station, Bruxelles-Midi, I have been here before. I recognise this feeling… ah, it’s because last time I was here I resolved to learn French, and here I am again, with no French. Despite being critical of borders and the brutal ways they are enforced, I seem to carry one within me.

A Stranger in Strasbourg

It's like a parent who only rarely sees their child. When they do, they promise the world. McDonald’s, Disney Land, new trainers. But the parent can also see the ways they have become a stranger. In an imprecise analogy, I once looked after a little kid, named B, in France. She was three and I’d been hanging out with her mother, my friend, for a few years in my late teens. I have seen B a handful of times since then, but miraculously, completely by chance, we reconnected earlier this year, before the pandemic, before everything closed down. I promised I would go to France and see them both and felt strangely committed to this promise.

When the borders opened, I found myself in Strasbourg, beholding this beautiful teenager who I’d once dressed for nursery. She was articulate, smart, kind and bilingual. And again, there was that feeling of having broken a promise, of having let someone down. The moment a parent realises that their child no longer mistakes Disney Land or McDonald’s or Nike for love. At that point, you’ve got to ask yourself why you didn’t act before, why you didn’t take more time, spend more time, devote more time.

Of course, B is not my child and I don’t have any particular responsibility for her upbringing — indeed I was barely eighteen when I was looking after her before leaving to go to university. But sitting around the table behind a beautiful old house in Strasbourg, with the peaceful canal behind us, I couldn’t help but wonder how life might have been different if I’d sat with the difficult feelings of being a stranger in France, of being a kind of auxiliary parent, and powered through. What was I afraid of? In retrospect, I think I was afraid of the physical transformation which comes with migration, with new responsibilities, with personal sacrifice.

Unacknowledged Power

This brings me to shame. It bothers me that for so many years I have been to different countries, been welcomed into families of bilingual people who haven’t been afraid to sound silly in English, while I have sat with calculated reticence, understanding more than I am willing to show, in order to maintain a kind of – what? Power? But now that I look at it, I was also pretending to be without power. This is fairly common. When you talk to people from a certain class, a certain background, they get annoyed if you point out the specificities of their experience and outlook – their class, their age, their sex, their race, the kind of education they’ve had, the kind of money they inherited. They want to be seen as an individual, somehow apart from the conditions that created and sustain them. To both have power without acknowledging it, and to deny having power without acknowledging that either. I see it so often in others, but now I see that in myself.

All of these feelings – shame, betrayal, guilt, uncertainty. They seem like heavy words to discuss the rather banal fact that I haven’t bothered to learn another language. Most people do the same thing: start with enthusiasm, then it wears off, then they forget about it all together until confronted by the shop assistant asking a question we should know the answer to. It’s this feeling specifically that morphs into shame for me, because it’s a feeling I’ve had a lot over the last few years. I should be able to explain this, but I can’t. I once read about this, but what was the quotation? I feel like I have heard this before, but I couldn’t tell you when. The name rings a bell, but I am not sure why. In fact, whenever you ask someone (read: someone British) who has travelled a lot whether they speak another language the usual response is:

I don’t speak X, but I can understand it.

I don’t speak your language but I can understand it. This might be another way of understanding what is happening in the UK politically. There is an implicit shame in not being able to speak properly or to fully comprehend what is going on. It is unsettling to feel out of place in your own place.

For me this translates to anger at being pulled out of the European Union because of the 2016 referendum, as well as shame that I lived in France, had every opportunity to stay there and learn French and build a little family, but didn’t take it. I am both indignant at losing my privileges, yet embarrassed to recognise that I did nothing to create, protect, or maintain them. And that my main concern – freedom of movement — is both idealistic and self-interested.

I found myself in an uneasy alliance with people who were a little more up front about the protection of their European privilege than I was. I think this is in part because when I walk around Brussels, or Paris, or Amsterdam, I can hear the blood of the colonised squelching from the pavement. I hear the same thing in Liverpool and Bristol, which complicates my longing to move elsewhere: the reality is, I am not moving because I can’t stand the squelching.

Somewheres and Anywheres

After four years of feeling politically adrift, I have realised that Brexit had nothing to do with people like myself, left-leaning types with no real investment or trust in parliamentary politics. I was lumped in with Liberal Elites, which made me take a long hard look at myself, though I always felt that such a description was untrue.

I also recognised myself in the term “Anywhere”. Around 2016 there was this idea that you could divide the UK population into two camps: “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. “Somewheres” were people whose sense of self came from a particular place, job and group of people, such as family ties and school friends. “Anywheres” were people with portable identities, who could live and work “anywhere” without losing a sense of themselves. Theresa May came after people like me when she said “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere – you don’t understand what citizenship means.”

What rankled was not the fact that Theresa May was hypocritically calling out international jetsetters, but the fact that when I really thought about it, I had been longing to be from somewhere but had never found it.

Part of the reason behind that was economic. I’m a freelancer, I necessarily have to travel to make money, I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, I am priced out of the housing market, I have twenty-thousand pounds of student debt. Indeed, I can be found drinking coffee and typing on my MacBook in Shoreditch. Indeed I do have asymmetrical hair. Indeed I do often travel to literary festivals all over the world. But what I could never understand was why these outward expressions were taken as absolute indicators of being posh, monied and elite, when in fact they are more often the signs of a precarious, indebted class of people being extorted for rent.

But what is also hypocritical is the fact that both “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” (by implication) speak English, and are noted for this monolingual trait around the world. The English rarely learn Spanish or French or Portuguese but are happy to holiday and retire in those places. English tourists and football fans are noted as the worst in the world – and it is often these supposed “Somewheres”, people who do not lead the kind of peripatetic life that I do, who take freedom of movement and everyone else speaking English for granted.

(My) Englishness

I don’t believe in simple class stratification, that “working class” people are one way and “middle class” people are another. But I do see how these terms are manipulated, so that working class means white, migrant means black or brown, so that someone like myself who is very definitely English (as opposed to Scottish, Irish or Welsh), is literally written out of the discourse around what Englishness can and should mean.

I feel this coming from both sides of the political spectrum. For some, I am not “ethnically English”, I am not white. For others, any claim to Englishness is political heresy – you are not supposed to identify with England if your ancestors were colonised by it. And this I understand. Except I don’t believe it’s a viable or particularly realistic or even very interesting position. And for me, it’s most exemplified that I, like most other English people, only speak English. Something rankles inside me when I argue against people who don’t like foreign languages on the bus, because although I support the right of the Turkish/Yoruba/Polish/Romanian conversation going on beside me, I have not learned any of these myself. And there is no expectation, no requirement and very little scrutiny of this tendency in the circles I move in, where English is the norm, and expected of everyone else.

As the political terrain changes, the little hypocrisies and points of failure that I am noticing in myself are becoming more and more obvious.

I am being described in a language not of my choosing and which seems inaccurate, incomplete. To be called an “Anywhere”, a liberal elite, a “remoaner” and yet to see all of the ways I have internalised and exercise the benefits and privileges of being British, of speaking English. To have gone through life relatively unscathed by overt racism because of the groundbreaking work of activists before me, only to find myself considering leaving England to live somewhere in Europe, when in fact Britain’s racial politics are head and shoulders above those of Belgium or France or Italy (and we are talking little heads and little shoulders – those of children). To find myself planning an escape route should Britain slide further into the xenophobic, isolationist cesspit, yet to be considering a place such as Belgium, which committed one of the worst atrocities in history during its colonisation of the Congo. To be so sensitive to the dog-whistle, the subtextual current, the re-emergence of history in my own language, and yet to be utterly incapable of understanding such subtleties in the languages of the places I see as a bastion of safety. To be horrified by Britain’s response to migrants, only to be considering moving to Fortress Europe, where freedom of movement within its borders is the flip side of ensuring those borders are enforced elsewhere.

But the true source of the turbulence is fear – fear of being or becoming an immigrant, and admitting that I have that fear. On the one hand, I am filled with shame that I am wary of shouldering the burdens my grandparents endured. On the other, I realise how much I have folded the wishful thinking of being British into my sense of self even while being conscious that at many levels I do not belong: neither wholly to Britain or Europe or anywhere else.

Broken Multilinguals

A few nights ago I asked my dad whether he considered himself bilingual. He said yes. He has two languages, “Jamaican Patois and broken English.” Broken English? Here’s a man who has lived in Britain for fifty years, who came as a child, who regularly breaks out into Cockney as much as Patois, and who speaks with a kind of Artist Taxi Driver confidence about the politics of the day. I couldn’t be sure if he was being modest or if I’d glimpsed a fragment of the migrant child that had arrived in England and couldn’t be shaken. I felt it was some mix of the two. My father is almost certainly dyslexic, writes in capital letters (which according to graphologists means he is “hiding something”), and has never, as far as I know, read a book in his life. I am disturbed by his self-image until I see the beauty in it: that maybe what he’s trying to express is that something about the way English has entered his life, how he adopted it, how he has become British, is broken.

Here’s a man who refuses to travel to Europe ever. Who never came with the rest of the family on holiday to Magaluf or Tenerife or Malta. Who only ever leaves London for work or to visit relatives in Birmingham. When I was growing up, I felt angry and rejected because of this – I wanted him to come on holiday with us, I wanted him to throw me over his head into the sea like random Turkish men did when we would holiday in Altinkum. Why were they present, with their children, but not him with me?

Now I see a lot of things rising to the surface. Fear, most prominently, followed by shame. I remember who he is speaking to – me. Master of received pronunciation, writer with a degree in English. It had never occurred to me until that moment when he described his English as broken, that this question of language might be bittersweet. His own child with the voice of those who mocked and oppressed him as a child; his own child without the hardships he suffered; his own child afraid of speaking, embodying, Jamaican Patois, the language he calls his mother tongue.

I’m reminded of two other people pointing this feeling out – this feeling of being ashamed of the way you speak. Over noodles, one of them says that she is often ashamed of who she is when she speaks French. At a barbecue, another says that he is terrified of learning French or Dutch because he doesn’t want to lose English – as English has become his first language after losing his mother tongues through the processes of migration, adaptation and assimilation. Both speak of the pain of bilingualism

It occurs to me that I cannot imagine losing the ability to speak English, and in that way it is so much more integral, internal, ingrained than I am comfortable with.

Perhaps this is why, despite understanding every word of Jamaican Patois, I struggle to see myself as bilingual. I envy all of the people who speak International English, yet I refuse to speak International Patois.

My uncle once told me he would not listen to me if I continued to speak in English to him. I was too shy to say “deh so” in the way it is meant to be said, so he kept driving until we missed the place I wanted him to stop. I froze because I expected to be called out, to trip up, to be finally and shamefully exposed as a monolingual piece of shit, with no mastery over my own language, heritage, tradition and history. The desire to be one of the group was so strong that I said nothing at all. Isn’t that often the case?

Jay Bernard, Brussels/London, July-September 2020

Image: Jay Bernard

Jay Bernard