not my voice who is speaking: ‘A Song From Tiahuanapu’

not my voice who is speaking: ‘A Song From Tiahuanapu’

In the context of the recent conference ‘Short Fiction as Humble Fiction’, organised by the Paul Valéry research centre EMMA and the European Network for Short Fiction Research, a short story writing competition in English, An opportunity for new voices,  was organised for foreign language students.

Invited to be one of the jury members I was particularly intrigued by the story:  A Song From Tiahuanapu written by the student Natalia Armenia. The story, located on a devastated island, with a lonely lake at its centre connecting the island’s inhabitants ‘into a place of sorrow’, creates a strange, dislocated atmosphere in a place swept by painful winds.

The story is a tragic account of a faraway, out-of-time land whose people speak a ‘secluded’ and ‘miserable’ language. Some of them have lost the ability so speak at all, because they have nothing to speak about and their teeth have dropped out, for they have nothing to smile about. The nameless, long-dead ‘me’ narrator, the middle child of eleven who cannot read, has a melody stuck in her head that she would love to pass on to her paralysed, mute younger sister, Gaia. But she cannot because she does not have the secret of transmission. One ‘uneasy’ morning as she awakens from sleep, she discovers her sister running towards her and follows her to the lake. Here, in the clearest of Tiapú, a man, sings to them, a melody, Gaia’s melody, in which hope resides. In order to find her own voice, the narrator is obliged to draw and create her own response to his song, a response that ensures remembering and respects ‘his privacy and his rights’.

Tiapú is the local language. It is the mother-tongue of the narrator who is obliged to borrow a non-specified person’s voice to tell her story in English, to a reader she addresses directly as ‘you’. That this borrowing is explicit and central to the action of the story and the act of storytelling in general, means that the ‘foreign’ sounding nature of the text, which sometimes uses non-idiomatic syntax and non-orthodox grammar forms, become an integral part of the story as the writer re-creates her foreign voice artistically.

Here for your pleasure is the full text of

Intrigued by the story I contacted the student/writer Natalia Armenia, to find out a bit more about her. Having completed her English under-graduate degree at Paul Valéry University she is currently doing a master’s on an exchange at the University of Cape Town where she is taking classes in African Contemporary Literature, Creative Writing and Gender Studies. Her master thesis will be on Queer Contemporary African Literature. She also writes on art for a Brazilian online magazine called Revistak7.

Contacted by email Natalia was kind enough to provide me with a language autobiography.

“I was born and raised in a bilingual family, but Spanish was always my first language. Growing up in Peru, my mother tried to teach me her language, French and enrolled me in the French School of Lima for 15 years, where students were mixing French and Spanish so much, we ended up speaking “Fragnol”. I have always been fascinated by the English language because I feel it has a lot more words than most languages to express an exact feeling in a more accurate way. My mother was obsessed with Brazilian telenovelas and I was intrigued by the passion of their voices, I ended up taking Brazilian Portuguese at University. And as a teenager, I learned Italian because I thought that was the language of love.”

In addition, she answered my two (recurring) questions:

Q: What does it feel like when you write in English?

A: When I write in English, I feel like I am performing, in a way wearing a mask, but still being myself.

Q: What does your English written voice sound like to you?

A:  I feel my English voice sounds both classic and refreshing, but I can’t deny my Spanish and French roots. It’s not that I translate the words into English, it is just that I try to transcribe concepts that I can only find in my mother tongues, to English.

The idea of performance, inspired by Bakhtin, has often been used when considering language creativity. Performance has been defined by Bauman (cited by Pope & Swann: 15) as:

“a mode of communication, a way of speaking, the essence of which resides in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative skill, highlighting the way in which communication is carried out, above and beyond its referential content. (Bauman, 1986: 3).”

A Song From Tiahuanapu is in this sense the performance of a creative voice in a foreign language. Because it draws attention to itself performative language is often associated with evaluation/critique and Natalia’s short story seems to me essentially a critique / an exploration of the appropriation of language.  In passing, it is interesting that she uses the verb ‘transcribe’ rather than ‘translate’, perhaps emphasising the literary nature of her writing and/or the physical process of writing.

A big thank you to the very talented Natalia for allowing me to publish her short story and answering my questions. I look forward to reading more from her. The fascinating issues raised by her story concerning  creative writing in EFL are highly stimulating for the teacher I am as I ask myself the question what activities I can put into place in order to best accompany the development of learner engagement with the foreign language? Or put differently, how best to liberate the melodies and the poetry of voices that are not our own. Or only partially.

Pope, R. and Swann, J. (2011) ‘Introduction: Creativity, Language, literature’ in Swann, J., Pope, R. and Carter, R. (eds) Creativity in Language & Literature, The State of the Art. Bodmin: Palgrave Macmillan: 1-22.

Thanks to fig_tart for the fabulous flower

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