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For Ocean Vuong, English is a language of violence

The UMass professor’s widely acclaimed book interrogates power, belonging, and family through the distance of English.

August 25, 2019

by Sierra Dickey

I briefly taught English classes to adult immigrants at an organization in Greenfield. During my semester there, all the teachers were white and the bulk of the students were brown with precarious legal statuses. Learning English in many adult education contexts is synonymous with working towards citizenship, so as teachers we stood along that gate. As teachers and natural citizens we were positioned to affirm or deny the burgeoning English production of our learners. Say it like this, read it like that, write it like so, were inevitably nudges towards rightness in the status quo. ESOL education, in an analytical moment, is trying to behold itself as this gatekeeping field it has a history of being. 

UPenn scholar Nelson Flores coined the term raciolinguistic ideologies to describe contexts like this. Raciolinguistic ideologies affect all language teaching in the United States but particularly ESOL. “Within the context of European colonialism and its aftermath .. language and race have become co-constructed in ways that frame the language practices of racialized communities as deficient and in need of remediation.” White teachers, brown students. 

Consider Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the new On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Vuong, a former English language learner, has accomplished an extraordinary feat with language: he went from “drowning” to being water. He writes from the outside, in, and through. He has harnessed the culture and cannon that along with war permanently altered his mother’s home country of Vietnam. Now, in this other language he offers us the story of him, his mother, his grandmother. English ‘othered’ him as a child, and now he ‘others’ it in a powerful spiraling return. 

Vuong is an assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMASS Amherst. His novel takes place between a past in Vietnam and the inner streets and outer tobacco fields of Hartford, Connecticut. The novel exploded when it came out in June and Vuong has been criss-crossing the country to give readings and appear on shows such as Late Night with Seth Meyers. There is an angle for everyone in this coming of age story. The narrator is a queer son of immigrants and navigates racism, repeated echoing pings of family trauma, homophobia, opiate addiction, poverty, and more along his way. Reading the book while based in the Pioneer Valley, and with my head deep into ESOL andragogy, the angle that compelled me most was Vuong’s fixation upon and interrogation of language and story. His language, and his conception of his place as the storyteller of his family are what frame and contain the growing, fighting, fearing, that mourning and falling in love, that make up the bulk of the narrator’s experience. 

Vuong’s narrator Little Dog experiences the stuff of the world as particles of story, poetry, narrative, and archive. He writes about punctuation and letters as if they were his flesh and blood, literally. “It is no accident, Ma, that the comma resembles a fetus — that curve of continuation.” And yet, the opening conflict in the novel is the disparity between his position as writer and his mother’s position as illiterate. He wonders if writing about her, to her, will further distance them: “I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”

He chronicles their story with love, sadness, rage, and the fierce will to thrive, but in the fact of the telling there is fear of compromise, a hint of betrayal. Vuong’s book illuminates better than most edu-speak articles the presence and effects of colonial paternalism in the ESOL world. His English has given him power, a power so exquisite and finely applied that he can use it to destabilize the culture, the cannon. His English has also taken him further away from his family and country of origin. Indeed, the book opens with a confession of distance: the narrator stands on one linguistic shore and looks across to another at his matriarchs. Little Dog learned that English was essential, but would also make him different when he was very young. His caretakers depended on him as a translator and a guide. “I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.” 

The narrator’s English is inherently a language of violence whether it masks him or furthers him from family. Vuong is one of many second generation authors interrogating English from inside their position as writers. As Elaine Castillo writes searingly on Lit Hub… “If American fiction is going to be at all deserving of the epithet, then it has to also encompass the America that exist beyond its borders, the Americas all around the world that makes America what it is today: the America that flowered in an archipelago almost ten thousand miles away, wiping over a million souls from the earth and sprinkling English dictionaries over their corpses.” The English monolith confronting immigrants is not only the one they need to speak to navigate the dominant systems of the United States but it is likely a language with a particularly bloody history. For Little Dog, English is the language of Americans in Vietnam. English escorted the forces that “ashed” his mother’s rural schoolhouse and fixed her to a 3rd grade level of Vietnamese. His abilities with words and his exceptional literacy is a darkly loaded gift from his mother and her past: “Reading is a privilege you made possible for me with what you lost.” 

English is also frequently the language of financial domination. In my experience in ESOL classrooms, non-speakers will know jingles, brands, trademarked foods, and swears that came to them via corporate fanfare and popular media. They may love these cultural tidbits, or they may regard them as nuisances. Either way, for many, their entry point into the language is framed by their socio-politically subjugated position as an immigrant. For example, many adult ESOL curriculums center on themes that suggest an American dream narrative. Units dwell on jobs, professional dress, currency and banking, American history and holidays, and shopping, always shopping. This content seems didactic about being a “good immigrant”: get a job, go shopping, move up in your job, go shopping, become a citizen. “One does not ‘pass’ in America, it seems, without English,” writes Vuong. 

Following a curriculum that pushed ways to “pass” with undocumented students always felt false and sometimes cruel. We taught everything they might need to go to community college or train into white collar work but their status would likely keep them from those things. Beginning as an ESOL teacher, I thought I would provide a service that immigrant, refugee, and migrant communities were requesting. Today, I am preoccupied with how to think about writing, reading, and sharing stories as resuscitative and full of justice when the language you do it in is so compromised? 

On one hand, we have the story of Vuong’s family of female survivors because he was able to tell it. He recreated his relationship to the language that conquered and colonized. He took control over the “mask” of English, in order to remove the mask of foreignness and illiteracy from his characters. Guided by scholars like Flores, and writers like Vuong and Castillo, I seek a de-masked ESOL pedagogy. I wonder: why pretend? Why not center the lived political position of the immigrant in class? There are many ways to facilitate English study and English speaking that explicitly acknowledge the colonial history of the tongue and also the violence and racism of the U.S. immigration system. It’s time to de-couple correct English with correct immigrantness. Language learning needs to be a force for liberation and not for coercion or manipulation into ready-made class categories.

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