The Mother Tongue

“…when women speak truly they speak subversively–they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin

Good Friday today and I am in the process of collecting essays from colleagues across the world for an edited collection on Life Writing and Human Rights, following on from a conference held at Kingston University in July of last year.  One of the strangest things about the academic world is its insularity:  the conference and publication process, for example,  we write up our research (which in humanities is usually done on one’s own in a library or archive), present it to colleagues in our specialist areas at a conference, and then send it off to get published in a specialist journal we hope will be read by more colleagues in our specialist area. While this insularity is useful and even comforting (it is good, though sometimes daunting as well,  to know that other researchers care about  the same things I do) accusations of navel-gazing hit home nevertheless. 

I came into academia late, after many years working in the “real world” at advertising agencies, auction houses, magazines, and film production offices. So to me the university world was both intriguing and kind of silly.  There is a great scene in Ghostbusters, when Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray have just been fired from their jobs researching paranormal activity at a New York university.  “We can’t take it in the real world,” Akroyd’s character says. “It’s not like academia.  In the real world they expect results!” In fact, to me, the whole self-serving and insulated protocols of university life seemed not only old-fashioned but, dare I say it, patriarchal.   

As the best selling writer Ursula K Le Guin put it when she gave the commencement address to you women graduating from the prestigious Byrn Mawr in 1986:

“The dialect of the father tongue that you and I learned best in college is a written one. It doesn’t speak itself. It only lectures. Many believe this dialect … is the highest form of language, the true language. All the great scientists and social thinkers wrote it. It is the language of thought that seeks objectivity… His language expresses the values of the split world, valuing the positive and devaluing the negative in each redivision: subject/ object, self/ other, mind/ body, dominant/ submissive, active/passive, Man/nature, man/ woman, and so on. The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard.”

Soon after, LeGuin embarks on a description of what she calls “the mother tongue”:

“The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, language not as communication, but as relation, relationship. … It is the language stories are told in… Not claiming something: offering something.”

As Le Guin suggests, there is something very “gentlemen’s club” about sharing your work with people in your own field, being dismissive of those outside your field and racing to be at the top of your own silo.   What does it all matter?  So several years ago, I determined that I would find a way to make my work matter to the larger world in some way – and the key to doing that is interdisciplinary research.

Witnessing  the joy on the faces of academics listening to the work of researchers outside their own specialist area is reason enough to recommend such initiatives, but the real reason we gathered at Kingston last July was to find ways of forging socially useful projects (both locally and internationally) that make use of life writing and trauma studies. 

At the conference were well-known writers, Eva Hoffman;  Patricia Hampl: ; Annette Kobak; Vesna Goldsworthy;

Documentary filmmakers such as Rob Lemkin;

political bloggers such as Emin Milli; Human Rights activists and barristers, and politically and socially engaged activists of various kinds, all of whom are involved in the study and practice of using life stories to make a difference, whether socially, artistically or judicially.  Since then, our MA and MFA students at Kingston have run initiatives working with the local elderly community and with troubled teenagers, as well as with offenders and ex-offenders, using life writing and poetry workshops to alleviate loneliness, anger and trauma. Further projects will arise in the future, including some life-writing work for victims of trauma in post-conflict countries in the Middle East.  And all because a group of (mainly female) academics chose to use the mother tongue: not claiming something, but offering something.

One thought on “The Mother Tongue

  1. This post just speaks so much to me that I had to come back and read it again. I am studying the MFA at Kingston and am a life writer/poet currently exploring some of the issues surrounding gendered and institutionalised language in my own writing. Thank you!


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