Bilingual Blues

Throughout We Need New Names, the characters use the languages they speak (and the levels of grammatical correctness they use) as a way of expressing their personal identities and showing how they are able to interact with the people around them. In a poetry excerpt from “Bilingual Blues,” Gustavo Pérez Firmat shares some of the difficulties he has encountered while juggling two languages by shifting back and forth between Spanish and English at varying frequencies throughout the stanzas (he explains more of his personal bilingual experiences in this interview with NPR):

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.

I have mixed feelings about everything.

Name your tema, I’ll hedge;

name your cerca, I’ll straddle it

like a cubano.

I have mixed feelings about everything.

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.

Vexed, hexed, complexed,

hyphenated, oxygenated, illegally alienated,

psycho soy, cantando voy:

You say tomato,

I say tu madre;

You say potato,

I say Pototo.

Let’s call the hole

un hueco, the thing

a cosa, and if the cosa goes into the hueco,

consider yourself en casa,

consider yourself part of the family.

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones,

un puré de impurezas:

a little square from Rubik’s Cuba

que nadie nunca acoplará.

(Cha-cha-chá.)

This poem seems to call into question which language—and accompanying cultural context—Firmat wants to use at any given time. The idea that he is constantly “hedging” and “straddling” the divisions between sides of how to look at situations indicates that each language comes with its own way of thinking. Referring to oneself as “hyphenated” may also speak to the “twoness” of having the heritage of one culture and then living in and trying to assimilate into another.

One of the concepts that appears most striking to me in the second half of We Need New Names is the significance of “home” languages and the changes that occur in language use in the context of immigration. Darling explains that “TK doesn’t understand his father’s language…because he is not from Ghana, his mother is American and he was born here” and then later comments “Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised” (154, 242). For Darling, as a first-generation immigrant, using the language that she grew up with seems to act as a form of self-expression that can only occur in limited ways. For TK, who ostensibly grew up expressing himself in only English, having an understanding of his parents’ languages does not seem to appeal to him as a way of sharing in his parents’ experiences of their cultures.

With this in mind, it seems that multilingualism could, at its most extreme, make it difficult to form and maintain one worldview. In the example of We Need New Names, I wonder whether or not Darling would consider English the “default” language of her American household, or which language she thinks in while in Zimbabwe versus America, since we read the entire text as English.

-Lindsay

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