So You Think You Know Your Mother Tongue

Near my house in north London there’s a Belarusian church made of wood. The Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church is the only wooden church that has been constructed in London since the great fire of 1666. Next to the church is a double-storey house – Marian House – where the priest lives. Marian House also serves as a community centre. By now you must be scratching your head, wondering why I’m telling you any of this.

The Beautiful Church Interior

It’s because I was at the Belarusian community centre last week, at a literary event to honour mother tongues. The concept of mother tongue is incredibly important to Belarusians, whose language was widely spoken in the region until they were Polonised and then Russified by conquering Polish and Russian empires. First things first; where is Belarus? For the answer, see the map below.

Where is Belarus?

The above comes from the BBC’s country profile. Belarus is a landlocked country in northern Europe, stuck between Poland to the west and Russia to the east. In the south is Ukraine, while Latvia and Lithuania lie north. The region has a fascinating history. I’m no expert (for a summary here’s a Wikipedia link), but the point is this: Belarusians in Belarus have been discriminated against for speaking Belarusian, their mother tongue.

Language shapes perception, and when those perceptions don’t accord with what an authoritarian regime wants them to be, the solution in that part of the world has been to crack down on language. This happened under Soviet rule.

Although Belarusians are now allowed to speak Belarusian, their language suffered years of decline. Even their Nobel Prize-winning author, Svetlana Alexievich, writes in Russian. It’s thus fitting that the Belarusian centre in London should host an annual event marking UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day.

And so we gathered, on the sunny afternoon of 23 February, to read poems in our mother languages. I, for one, had to think hard about which language to read in.

The first language I ever heard was Cantonese – which isn’t really a language, it’s a Chinese dialect. My parents also speak English, Malaysian-style English (known affectionately as Manglish), and up to the age of 10, I could not make head or tail of Western accents. When I started school, a third language – Malay – was thrown into the mix. Malay was the medium of instruction for us. By the time I left for England in my teens, I spoke and wrote Malay and English fluently while also using Cantonese in daily conversation.

What, then, is my mother tongue?

When someone asked the question after my talk at the 2018 London Book Fair, I fudged. I didn’t know. I’ve never consciously thought of Cantonese as my mother tongue, in the same way that China is not my homeland. I’ve visited China only once, and I left feeling eternally grateful that my ancestors went to Malaysia. English is now my first language and I write in it, but mother tongue? My mind just couldn’t get there. I also speak and read French, which I had to learn at my British boarding school; in fact, I speak English and French now better than either Malay or Cantonese.

In the end I reverted to the comfort of Malay. I read a couple of poems. Not my own, I hasten to add. My repertoire doesn’t yet extend to poetry.

First, though, I had to introduce Malaysia. People know the country for downed jetliners (MH17 ) and corruption (1MDB), but Malaysia is so much more than that.

The Excitement of Malaysia

You can see how animated I get when I talk about Malaysia. I made no bones about the profusion of languages in my life. These comments challenged some of what the two invited Belarusian poets of distinction, Uladzimir Arlou and Valiantsina Aksak, had said. They kicked the event off with beautiful poetry in Belarusian (their own). One of them then expressed the view that a person cannot exist without a mother tongue. Given Belarusian history, I understand this perspective, even if I disagree with it. Here they are below, listening graciously.

In multicultural Malaysia, some of us exist happily with no mother tongue or with more than one. Or with a present-day mother tongue that is different to our childhood mother tongue. Or a mother tongue our ancestors never spoke.

Distinguished Poets Uladzimir Arlou and Valiancina Aksak

The poems I read come from the Malay tradition of pantun. Pantun are verses in groups of four which have both rhythm and rhyme. I used to love pantun at school. The verses are witty, amusing and evocative: real, living poetry that people use in conversation. Here’s one:

Pisang emas dibawa belayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.”

(Source: Soscili)

Below is my attempt at a rough translation:

Golden bananas are carried on voyages,

One ripens on top of a chest,

Debts of gold can be repaid,

Debts of kindness are carried to the grave.

For me, the lines above distil the essence of old Malay culture, where human kindness was valued above riches. A far cry, in other words, from what Malaysia became in recent years.

Elsewhere, I have mentioned how poetic Malay is as a language; pantun conveys this so well. At the same time, a lot of the poetry reveals the gentleness inherent in Malay culture. For instance, verses can be used to give someone a telling-off (without really telling them off). The audience giggled at the idea of poetry as admonishment.

They were surprised by the absence of titles. Pantun don’t need titles because this isn’t a high-faluting verse form; on the contrary, pantun is down-to-earth poetry anyone can make up. Yet, even in the eight lines I shared, people were moved by the beauty in its cadence.

The audience must have liked my presentation – they voted to give me first prize!

The prize was none other than a bottle of what will surely be a memorable Belarusian speciality. See that number at the bottom: 40? That’s the alcohol content. I kid you not. Apparently this is medicinal alcohol, a balm, I’m told. We shall see. (In fairness, the label does declare 20 herbs.)

The Highly Alcoholic Prize!

I know that my hosts are waiting anxiously for feedback on Balzam Belaruskii. For the moment I’m afraid I must disappoint them. Each time I look at the 40%, I shake my head. I’ll have to be very sick before I dare open this bottle.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the Anglo-Belarusian Society for a great event. Special thanks to Karalina Matskevich for her energetic organisation, Father Serge Stasievich for generous hosting, Aliaksandra Bielavokaja for her photography and to everyone else who was there, too, the young as well as the not-so-young. We departed into a glorious evening and I’d like to leave readers with an uplifting view. Here’s London’s Belarusian church at night, all lit up.

London’s Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church at Night

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Modern Life, Writing

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