I took to the English language as a duck takes to water.
I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonization.
The Mirrored Building, Part One
The bird thought to find its way, realizing too late that a mirror had replaced the sky.
L. Freycinet, In a Series of Letters to a Friend (1817), or Eagerness
At length: the Marianne Islands. Here original habits mingle with the austere, superstitious manners of Spaniards. The bottom is good, the anchorage safe. Our minds, greedy of pleasure, make us eager. Rich countries we quitted make us eager.*
The Northern Mariana Islands lie in a crescent moon south-southeast of Japan. At the lower point is Guåhan, also known as Guam, an island that is geologically part of the same volcanic chain but that set itself apart by becoming an unincorporated U.S. territory instead of remaining part of the Commonwealth. Though the people in both places are called CHamoru, or Chamorro, as is their language, the rift sowed differences. My cousins on Saipan teased those of us born on Guam: we weren’t CHamoru; we were Guamanian—a little whiter, a little more American, a little less authentic.
Split down the middle. That’s what people used to say about me when I was little, meaning my face. My freckled and Jewish, brown and island face. Face of my father and of my mother, map of dis/possession. I struggled to explain that the divide is not superficial but runs inward, bone deep.
The Mirrored Building, Part Two
Where I live now, there is a mirrored building. The outside world continues in it, reversed. Occasionally at night, a blind is left open, a light switched on. The reflected world cracks open.
The building is large and squat. I walked Seamus around it, and when he died, a new dog took his place. The seasons, doubled in its walls, have come and gone; my hair has grown long and gone short in the glass.
L. Freycinet, In a Series of Letters to a Friend (1819), or Word for Word
The primitive language of the Marianne islands is monotonous, difficult. They have adopted the language of their masters, the language of their vices. But translate one of their speeches word for word: you will be astonished. A native said to me yesterday, “The aspect of the island has I know not what of majestic, that enlarges the mind, purifies the thoughts.” And, speaking of the lightness of the proas, he said: “like the birds of the ocean they cut the waves, and display the wind: they are the wind itself.”
Read more from Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams here.
The archipelago of uplifted coral that is my mother’s homeland surfaced during the earth’s ancient cycles of glaciation. The early people came in sakmans, carried by wind and seas, guided by stars and clouds and bioluminescence, the fragrance of flowers, the flight paths of birds. Settlers lived and fished and farmed in this part of Oceania for thousands of years, but the naming history issues forth at the moment of subjugation. Islas de los Ladrones—the Islands of Thieves—they were called by the first Europeans who came. Then Islas de las Velas, the Islands of the Lateen Sails. Then the Mariana Islands, in honor of Spain’s queen regent. Before it was Guam, Guåhan was known, under Japanese rule, as Omiya Jima, the Great Shrine Island.
Where to avoid capture by American forces, Japanese soldiers and civilians hurled themselves to their deaths, the bluffs were christened Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff. Elsewhere, settlements recall the body of the creation god Puntan: Tiyan, his flat stomach. Hagåtña, his blood. Toto, his resting back. Mongmong, his beating heart.
My grandfather Joaquin left his land in seven pieces, one for each of his seven children. The plots of sloping red soil and bamboo brakes are grown over with guava and avocado and star fruit trees, pecked at by chickens, and roamed by hounds. The hamlet is called As Perdido. Literally, “to what’s lost.”
These small islands have grown crowded with denotations, I try to tell a friend, except it comes out as detonations.
Aberiguasion: The Act of Questioning
I am reading from a passage on CHamoru history and culture. Kåntan Chamorita is an ancestral form of call-and-response, a spontaneous sung dialogue. Each verse is composed of four lines, and each singer repeats the previous two before adding their own improvised couplet.
Do you know about these chants and dances?
My mother grabs the book, squints at the page suspiciously, makes a sound of dismissal. Huffing a little, she says, No. These people, they just makes it up.
Thumbing the texts, I brandish our histories: the brutality of Japanese rule; the architectural colonization that drove the CHamoru from los antiguos, their dwelling places in latte houses; the violation of natural resources brought about by American occupation.
She tsks, waves impatiently. Hekkua’. An expression that means at once “I don’t know” and “Forget it.”
This is not what I am looking for.
In 1917, the U.S. Navy banned the CHamoru language in the Mariana Islands. A few years later, by order of U.S. naval captain Adelbert Althouse, all CHamoru dictionaries were burned. The language was said to represent a cognitive deficiency. The adoption of English would ensure, among other things, mental well-being.
The ban has since been lifted, but my mother hid her language for so long, it’s become hard to find.
What is the word for sky? I ask her.
She shakes her head. Nothing word for sky. Only heaven: långet.
What is the word for mirror?
My mother shrugs. Some reason, I don’t remember.
She grabs my arm and points. Looking back, I see the full blood moon hanging low. She smiles at me, hugs her arms across her chest, and shivers. Her word for beautiful.
That’s the thing with language laws: they are put in place to erase, and they work so well that what comes back is disappearing ink.
When I first started writing about my mother, I described her as a shadow and as silent. What I didn’t know then is that in every place I lived, throughout all the islands we traveled, there was a shadowland of mothers and fathers in chokeholds.
L. Freycinet, In a Series of Letters to a Friend (1820), or Hunger
We again set sail. The coast is lighted with fires. We have climbed several mountains, two hundred fathoms high. On the summit, madrepores and corals. Found old, bare, breadfruit trees, the tops exhibiting a few grayish branches. A few low, feeble cocoa-trees. We have raised withered heads; moaned the sadness of nature, and wished to die with her.
And so did we sail out. For more than ten years, with my father at the helm. We moved into other countries where other languages had been suppressed and where other people had been made invisible. There were signs, but I didn’t see them. In New Zealand, where I went to kindergarten, Ma¯ori children were beaten for speaking te reo in schools. Bislama was prohibited in Vanuatu, but I only remember the quietness of the bay, the great banyan trees, the malaria pills. In New Caledonia, where I went to elementary school, the Kanak languages were banned from the education system from 1863 until 1984. Gendarmes in Nouméa stood on street corners with machine guns slung across their chests. My way to school was lined with gated houses, Dobermans hurling themselves at—sometimes over—the fences.
My parents believed certain languages to be superior. CHamoru had been disallowed from the start, and its cadence, too. On the occasions my stresses assumed forbidden shapes, the lick of my father’s strap came quick. I spoke English at home and French in school, the two twinning powerfully in me until last night became yesterday night, until even my restless dreams unfolded in both. I learned to write on the beaches of my childhood: ship, shine, and shoe, the letters stretched long and skinny in the sand. As for my mother’s tongue, it remained on a more distant shore.
We didn’t have television on the boat. At night my father read to me in the hammock on deck. I played a flashlight up into the sky, trying to locate the exact moment of the beam’s absorption.
Certain passages we returned to. Again and again, we wondered if it was the largest diamond in existence, and again and again, the gypsy countered in my father’s hoarse whisper that no, it was ice.
Days I spent reading Tintin or the British fairy tales we bought at flea markets. In the background, my mother washed dishes or sat on the kitchen counter, worrying a grain of rice between her fingers, face closed. I was moving farther away, into woods and winter, bogs and moors, deep into the language of empire.
My father, meanwhile, sat at his slanted desk, speaking into a recorder. He did this every day, an additional ship’s log of sorts.
Eventually he developed a habit of sending cassette tapes to friends and family in lieu of letters. His voice filled the cabin. We grew used to him telling our story.
The Mirrored Building, Part Three
The first bird I saw fly into the mirrored building was a red-tailed hawk. It dove into the glass, making a terrific crash, stumbling back in midair and hovering. Twice more, it attacked its own reflection. I lifted my hand helplessly. How do you stop a thing from itself?
The next day, I noticed the hawk perched on a security camera, all those eyes looking down at me.
Saussure talks about the signified and the signifier, but what happens when you can’t tell them apart? A mirror, like language, is a construct of duplicitous depth and direction, capable of truth and lies in equal measure, and haven’t we always hoped to walk through glass and find a god we didn’t make, pull the moon from water, and never drown?
Anyway, it is not lost on me, the symbolism of the boat. Of passing through. Of being unmoored.
My mother is telling us something exciting. She trips happily over the words, her face laughing. My father interrupts to correct her grammar. She repeats his version. He takes her through it again. The story falters in the air, flutters to a stop. When my father says broken English, I picture the words wounded on asphalt and stone, ground by a heel, bruised wings beating weakly.
My mother did not want me speaking like her. She wanted me to be better than that, which is to say better than her.
Taya’ Tatautau Sin Anining, or There Is No Body Without Its Shadow
Kao piniten hao?—Have you been hurt?
Hunggan. Mayulang, yu’—Yes. I’m breaking.
My mother corrects me: mayulang only applies to a thing that’s broken, not a person. You can be hurt, she tells me, but not broken.
That’s the thing with language laws: they are put in place to erase, and they work so well that what comes back is disappearing ink.
The Mirrored Building, Part Four
The geese came in the concluding winter, a fat-bottomed pair that didn’t like being more than a foot apart. They floated on the retention pond behind the wire fence and cautionary signs; they lingered under the sprinklers of the construction site nearby, padding about in the wet sawdust and mud. During storms, they hid under the protective tarp of my patio furniture. It got so I looked for them every day—their apologetic eyes and tentative necks. They followed my dog and me on our walks and, when we outpaced them, waited for us in one parking lot or another. They looked shyly at their likenesses in the mirrored building, walking up close but never quite touching. If they ever laid eggs, foxes must have found them, because no goslings turned up.
A neighbor started complaining. How do we get rid of these birds? she wanted to know. They were leaving droppings on the walkway in front of her house. Notes started turning up on our cars or slipped behind our storm doors. Are you feeding the geese? Are your fruit trees encouraging them to stay?
Then, for days, no geese. No calls or droppings. I wish I could tell you it ends differently, that language, weaponized, does not foretell violence or erasure, that at no time did I find them, crumpled and wing-bent, one limp form draped long over the other. I don’t know how it was done, how it is ever done, especially in the late spring, especially in the clear, glassless light that makes it impossible to mistake one thing for another.
Espeho: From the Spanish Espejo, from the Latin Speculum: A Mirror or a Bright Patch of Plumage
I have learned that our forebears invented their verse while working together, that the incantatory structures had to be learned backward and forward, that they collaborated understanding and interpreted the sun-hot world shoulder to shoulder.
I hungered to bring this to you, what I imagined you wanted: fishermen hurling nets to the stars, the mythic origin of palm trees. I wanted to braid pandanus with you and describe my mother’s voice as she slips into the past. Yes, I had certain hopes. But desire leads to suffering, and the truth is that my mother listens to K-pop and makes noises instead of words. When I say awful, she laughs hysterically and tries to say it herself, rolling the word impossibly in her mouth. Oww-full, she says and then, full-woah-woah-woah-woah. Waggling her shoulders at the same time in a dancey way that says Isn’t language funny? Isn’t it stupid? When I use spider in a sentence, she shudders, runs her fingers down my spine.
When I was very little and often disappointed, my mother said, in the steadiest and most clarion of tones, You will never be happy. It’s true that I haven’t been good at it. But in the morning, while I make coffee, she comes up behind me, presses my arms hard, and breathes me in. And whatever I was or wasn’t looking for seems to exist here, in this lingua franca of gesture and sound.
L. Freycinet, In a Series of Letters to a Friend (1817), or From Heaven to Center
The people exhibit a frightful, a disgusting, a robust, a savage. Dirty, stinking cloth covers women loins to knees. Wide trowsers cover men only to the middle of thigh. A disgusting, active leprosy leaves on the body black and livid marks. Even when it disappears, a continual dread. They live and they die with a few ears of Indian corn. Here everything is hideous: the houses, and the specters.
Out at Sea, My Parents Fight
My father has spent a lifetime whetting his words. As a little boy, he had a library of bound books inscribed with his name. As an undergraduate at Carolina, he studied speech, drama, and theatrics. At Loyola, he studied law. He has the language—do you see?
When they fight, he narrates the situation to me. In his impeccable English, he describes my mother’s behavior. He tells her to calm down as she searches frantically for the right vocabulary.
He says, Whoa, whoa, and puts his hands up, whistling low in amazement. He tells me, Look at her, she’s like an animal.
She lunges at him, scratching his bare back.
Look at what she’s doing to me, he says beseechingly, turning toward me. He holds out his arms for me to go to him.
And I do.
Shame can unfurl in a person’s chest. It is hot and swells up like a second heart, and like another heart it can throb and you can feel that some days, that throbbing, way down in the soles of your feet or behind your eyes.
Later, a therapist will tell me that it was a survival instinct, that a child aligns herself with who she believes will survive. But I want you to know that I knew it was wrong, that I watched over his shoulder her face.
Hinekok: The Last of, the End of, Being Used Up, Disappearance, as the Last Phase of the Moon
The etymology of translation refers to the removal of a saint’s body to a new location, to bearing bones and words, both sacred, across. As if anything can be moved whole, as if a single anything doesn’t disintegrate, doesn’t dust, with the slightest touch.
Can you hear that I am still having trouble with the telling? Did I not say, all this time later, how hard it is to relocate, or grow, a language? To decide on the calculus of its power?
The Mirrored Building, Part Five
The spring after the geese were killed, another pair came, but one was killed by a car on the road that runs by the mirrored building. Commonwealth Drive, that road is called. We soon noticed that the remaining goose was behaving oddly: It wouldn’t abandon its reflection. During a rainstorm, I’d find it pressed up to the wall with a wing lifted over the goose in the glass, for weeks, for months, haunting the building, feeding there, sleeping there. I’d stand and watch as it pecked at the dream goose, paced and turned and danced with its other self.
These days, my fairy tales come from parking lots. My more sympathetic neighbors and I watch closely the comings and goings of the birds. We text pictures of their whereabouts, their numbers and habits, their chatter and their romances. We call them our geese.
Whether she’s heard what I’ve said or not, my mother asks, Which one?
Would you like to walk?
Do you think it’s going to rain?
She says sweather, cementary, sangwich, and stripette. She calls paté pad thai. Deafness is creeping into her, making everything more of a muddle. For me, at least; she is serene, practicing what the French call yaourter, singing without knowing the lyrics. Yaourter. Yogurting. Having the term puts me at ease.
We never heard the end of my mother’s stories. Halted, they were unable to regain momentum and tumbled soft and loose as feathers. These days, she is happy to let most of her sentences go unfinished.
Ai, you know, nenny girl, it just that . . .
From time to time, I open my mouth to prompt the rest, then shut it.
You going to say something?
I shake my head.
She raises her eyebrows, juts her chin.
I tell her, You’re a book of lost endings.
Which one? she asks.
When my father says broken English, I picture the words wounded on asphalt and stone, ground by a heel, bruised wings beating weakly.
The Mirrored Building, Part Six
One evening, the building was a sunset, the sky a wilding of orange. A tree grew there—bright and young, its sleeves rustling. I too was watching that world instead of my own, which is how I came to see the crow flying from behind me before dropping down at my feet.
I am remembering that the French words for theft and flight are the same.
Fama’hanoa: To Make Believe You Are Going
My mother yelled at me a single time. We were under the plumeria trees of As Perdido.
It’s too small here, I said. It’s boring, hot. It’s too small.
In fairness, she had worried about this. She had warned me. Before leaving my father, she had knelt down in front of me and said, I don’t think you like where I am from.
And maybe I had misgivings about that, but I have also routinely misgauged her resilience. I thought she needed me.
We spent two years sleeping on my auntie’s living room floor. Unrolling futons and lying under the weeping air conditioning unit and peeling paint. We ate Spam and rice with ketchup. We ate without forks, our palms shiny with grease. I wore uniforms and went to a Christian school where the teachers did not believe in dinosaurs. As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee, we sang.
I called my father on the rotary phone. Dragged the tangled cord after me. Hid in the hallway, sat on the beaten carpet, and said I wanted to go to boarding school.
Later, I repeated this to my mother in Auntie Lou’s kitchen. An oilcloth on the table, a fan whirring, ants lumbering up the walls. We started inside, then we were out.
Small, boring, hot, I yelled. I hate it here.
The temple trees, thick around us, hushed. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth trembled. She inhaled.
You hate the color of my skin.
Something in me stalled and lost altitude.
But I’m the same color, I told her.
Too bad, she said.
Lately, I have been confusing the CHamoru word for flight, malagu, with the word for flee, falagu. The bird flying becomes the bird fleeing.
You can be taught to love the thing that destroys you. To feel its love for destruction and mistake that love for your own.
Un Exutoire: Activity to Rid Yourself of an Unpleasant Feeling, or a Release of Desires
Translate again and again. Disappear into the etymology. Escape, escape, escape. You can only do it for so long. Frustrated and imperfect, never exactly right, never confident. When language collapses, when your lexicons blink off in the night, you stop speaking. You speak more loudly. You bungle tenses, are sent ahead and left behind. You crash. You motion, sign, nod, genuflect. You ask the cashier to change yourself.
Aspect: As Relative Position
And what if I did want to be better than her?
L’appel du vide, or “the call of the void,” describes the feeling of wanting to jump from a height. Belief springs from suggestion after all, and I have variously craved reversal: to unsee, to unname, to unmean.
Under the plumeria trees, I didn’t think I was ashamed of her color or her language. I didn’t think I was, but what else does it mean that I was perpetually looking for a more perfect grammar? It is not unlike hiding, or passing, or desiring. Or disappearing by force, with limited success, something you don’t already recognize as beautiful.
When I was little, navigation was a necessary part of my education. I was trained to decode weather faxes, to discern the wind and current. To look for reefs by choppy water. I memorized the maritime alphabet, the delineation of flags. I knew how to find the right frequency, to repeat a call, to say, Over. There was a time when I knew how to signal distress, how to read maps, how to chart the course. In the event of a storm, of my parents being lost at sea, I should still be able to find my way.
I dream now of the islands and wake with my head barely above water, my mouth filling with salt.
My father once told me a story about my great-grandparents, who grew to despise one another so much that they drew a line down the middle of their house and never crossed it. In my imagination, each half was complete, fully furnished. They would walk and sit and sleep on opposite sides, living out their lives at slightly different pitches. I liked to think there were peaceful days, days when the fault line didn’t glow and the ground didn’t dip or slip but felt solid underfoot.
Mamaolek ha’?—Are you doing okay?
Maolek. I’m doing okay.
*Here and following: these excerpts are taken from Narrative of a Voyage Round the World by Jacques Arago, a memoir recalling the author’s travels across the Pacific with Captain Louis de Freycinet in the early 1800s.