Language as the mother of bond and breach is beautifully storied in Sadiqa de Meijer’s poignant and provocative memoir, alfabet/alphabet. This is a book that dreams of transforming migration, citizenship, families, nationhood and the very utterances upon which each is built. A deeply hopeful narrative about language itself, a singular exploration of the way that words build a home. – 2021 Peer Assessment Committee
Sadiqa de Meijer is the author of the poetry collections Leaving Howe Island and The Outer Wards. Her work has won the CBC Poetry Prize and Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario.
Congrats on your Governor General’s Award, Sadiqa. The book explores your transition from speaking Dutch to English. Why was it important for you to explore this terrain?
Thank you! After my first book of poems, I started asking myself what it meant for me to write in English, and the answers turned out to go far deeper than I’d imagined. Until then, my languages existed within me in a togetherness that I took for granted; writing alfabet/alphabet was the process of bringing their overlap and borders into consciousness.
In part, the book considers how language affects identity and our sense of home. Can you talk about this idea a little more?
The book’s epigraph, “Language is our fatherland, from which we can never emigrate,” is by Russian-Dutch writer and translator Irina Grivnina, and similar in nature to the poet Czesław Miłosz’s famous “Language is the only homeland.” When there has been migration in our lifetime or our histories, the old land is no longer ours to touch, and neither are the people who still live there, but languages travel with us. They remain as close as our voice, can resurrect our sense of self and home wherever they are spoken, and are very slow to extinguish. This gives them great power to sustain in us a feeling of belonging.
What’s your own litmus test, as a reader, for powerful storytelling?
You know, storytelling is not my natural inclination as a writer, so I deeply admire that skill as a reader. When I lose my awareness that I’m reading, because the narrative itself has become immersive and encompassing, that remains a magical experience.
What does it mean for you to be recognized by your peers with this award?
It was an honour to be among the finalists, whose books encompass a great range of subjects. For alfabet/alphabet to be selected as winner is an enormous gift to my writing practice.
49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?
Here in the precarious side-table stack are Bertrand Bickersteth’s The Response of Weeds, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s A Short History of the Blockade. Fuelled by the recent celebration of its 20th anniversary, I am also rereading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return.
Excerpt from alfabet/alphabet
accent / accent
My mother’s vowels were clear as drinking water. She expected ours to sound the same.
She was a teacher, and the child of two teachers; before them, there was a madwoman, a sea captain, a divorcée, a drunk. And then blacksmiths, generations of them, clanging out horseshoes on inherited anvils.
“The finest Dutch,” she used to say, “is spoken in Haarlem.” That wasn’t where we lived.
I thought of the song about the bells.
The clocks of Haarlem, they sound sweet of tone.
The Dutch words for sound (the verb) and vowel are very close: klinken and klinker. The bricks of the old streets are also called klinkers, which has to do with the archaic term inklinken, to shrink down or dry or compress a material.
When I was in first grade, our class visited an abandoned brick factory on the Rijn.
We knew the ruined structure as the backdrop to a quarry. People swam there in the summers. Our cupped hands, plunged in the shallows, would emerge crowded with wriggling tadpoles. Dikkopjes; little fat heads.
The building that had manufactured bricks was also made of bricks: one tall, round chimney, a row of arched ovens with crumbling walls, and a roof overgrown with dandelions. Our guide had worked at the factory. The river clay, he explained, had been dug from where the quarry now was, then purified and shaped and baked. He told us the quality of bricks can be confirmed by listening for their lucid, musical pitch when banged together.
We were from schoolteachers, and we would sound like it.
Not from market vendors, who spoke the Dutch of our region: grammatically pragmatic, lower in pitch, with languidly melodic tones. That was called flat—it had to do, a long time ago, with the elevations of the land.
And also not from the Queen, with her architectural hats, her bruised and reticent inflections. That was talking with a hot potato in your mouth.
What a tough and lovely feeling it was to slip into the vernacular on the streets. To skin a knee and pronounce “I’m bleeding” as “I bloom.”
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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