“Anatomies of Languages Lost and Found” Mirene Arsanios / Dina Ramadan, δημοσίευση στο e-flux [30/3/2023]Marilena Pateraki
In her collection of essays and stories, The Autobiography of a Language (2022), Mirene Arsanios both yearns for the comfort of a mother-tongue and rejects the nationalistic confines of monolingualism. In doing so she develops some of the themes previously explored in Notes on Mother Tongues (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020) and A City Outside the Sentence (2015), a chapbook produced by Ashkal Alwan. Raised in a number of languages, the New York-based Lebanese writer and founding editor of the Arabic/English literary magazine Makhzin floats through the spaces between them in search of an ever-elusive narrative. Spanning significant personal and political changes for Arsanios, The Autobiography of a Language is an exploration of the possibilities and limitations of the narrative form, the frailty of the human body, the pain of dislocation and the trauma of lost inheritance. Through experimentation with style and form, language is dissected, its innards turned inside out, its distortions and contradictions laid bare, messy, and tangled.
Dina Ramadan: Perhaps we can begin by talking about the time frame of this book. These essays and stories come from very different moments, personally and politically, locally and globally.
Mirene Arsanios: Yes, thanks for noticing the temporal arc of the book, which is very heterogeneous! In 2019, I assembled disparate writings into a manuscript. Some of these stories, such as “Awer” (2015), date back to my MFA years at Bard College. Others were prompted by a commission or an invitation (“E autobiography di un idioma” and “Motherless Tongues” were both commissioned by e-flux, for example). “The Good Daughter” and “Last Days of Sleep” were added once the manuscript was already completed. Both of these date to 2019, a year of life-changing convergences—the death of my father and birth of my son. From 2015 to 2020 the world changed multiple times; in 2016 I moved to New York from Beirut; in 2019, the financial system collapsed in Lebanon, followed by the port explosion a year later. These were (and still are) years of exodus, departure, tremendous loss, both in Lebanon and the region at large. The Autobiography is an attempt to put into language, even if tentatively, these personal and historical conjunctures. It loosely chronicles the last few years via specific events as they relate to my experience—living in New York in a gentrified neighbourhood, experiencing the privatized medical system in Lebanon during my father’s illness, reflecting on the loss of inheritance and mother tongues, etc.
DR: One of the most compelling aspects of the collection is your complicated relationship to confessional writing; you are clearly drawn to it, but simultaneously resist it, at least in its more conventional forms.
MA: I reflect on the history of American confessionalism more explicitly in my current manuscript, The Other Side of Freedom, but I think questions of the first person are already present in The Autobiography. One of the assumptions around confessional writing is the conflation of the first person on the page and the life of the author. Writing from life doesn’t mean that writing is an unmediated, unfiltered experience. In The Autobiography, I draw attention to the technologies of the first person, its various constructs, and the ways in which the self is always in formation. One expects truthfulness or a realistic account of an author’s life in an autobiography, but what if an essay was fictional or an autobiography written by someone other than the self? I’m drawn to texts—certain stories by Lydia Davis for example, Renee Gladman’s prose, Mieko Kanai’s short stories, and of course Jorge Luis Borges—that challenge the literary contract between a reader and author, and shift the “order of things” by refusing the conventions of genre from within.
Η συνέχεια εδώ.