Accent Grave

I was born with one talent in this world: imitate accents of foreign languages I learn. “You have no accent!” is the first thing any immigrant in Canada I encounter tells me after I identify as an immigrant. I mumble a “Thank you,” and squirm. Literally, sometimes. My foot starts nudging some dirt around of its own free will. Because I have no formula. Because I have done nothing to achieve this prowess. Because I have not worked for it. Because what is there to say to a person who’s not only been anxious about their professional prospects, but also likely discriminated against because of their accent in this hierarchical world in which language is such a marker of difference?

Maybe next time I have this conversation with someone, I’ll just delicately point them to reading Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, as it might offer a way into what it’s like to make your peace with a world in which identity is constant negotiation, without always submitting to its demands.

Zhuang comes to London, UK, to study English for a year. The novel is a Bildungsroman that traces that year through the acquisition of language, a lover, adventures small and large, and the consciousness of being a global citizen. It’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes epic, and always steeped in the desire to parse difference through all kinds of experiences.

The first thing Zhuang has to do when she arrives in London is accept a name change to Z, because people in England do not even attempt to pronounce her Chinese name. It is only a first stripping, but Zhuang does not dwell on it, because “That was my past life. Life before in China.” Like any immigrant, Zhuang is prepared to make sacrifices, and change who she is for this new place, which demands she remake herself into a new person.

We travel alongside Zhuang on her ‘education’ through language. Each scene is a chapter that starts with a new English word that Zhuang translates with the help of her ubiquitous Concise Chinese-English Dictionary. Language mediates everything: her introduction to life in England, her every experience, even her romantic relationship(s).

But it is Zhuang, of course, who interprets conceptual difference for us, readers.

“Love,” this English word: like other English words it has tense. “Loved” or “will love” or “have loved.” All these specific tenses means Love is time-limited thing. In Chinese, Love is “” (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.

If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite.

And, of course, Zhuang seeks this timelessness, this eternal quality,  in her romantic relationship as a means of achieving stability. Such a tempting aim, reiterated in so many ways in immigrant literature.

I loved this book, and not only because it weaves many strands of my own interests, of my own experience, but also because it offers an intellectual exploration of becoming without the burden of didacticism or preciousness. It reads like the quest of an intellectually curious person to find her place in the world by translating—linguistically, critically, and culturally—her new surroundings.

One Response to “Accent Grave

  • Maisaa Youssef
    12 months ago

    Sounds really interesting Margrit. It is on my list now, thanks for the introduction:) I have always been fascinated by the politics and power of grammar too…

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