Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging

By Sonya Vatomsky

Remember the Dragonlance novels? I drank them like water as a teenager, and a line from one of the books still swims up in memories on occasion: a half-elf character—Tanis?—describing plainly how the circumstances of his birth ensured a dull, chronic loneliness. Too elven for the humans, too human for the elves, Tanis felt misunderstood in a world where even the most country of taverns hosted orcs, paladins, and dwarves alike every night. “Misunderstood” isn’t quite the right word, though. It evokes rebellion, speed bumps in the road of finding yourself. This was more a gaping void where understanding and empathy should be: the half-elf found himself barred from the experience of truly being seen by another, which is some pretty deep existential shit to drop into a fantasy book series.

 
 Sonya Vatomsky

Sonya Vatomsky

It’s perhaps not surprising that this line resonated with me, a thirteen-year-old kid wearing black eyeliner in the wake of Columbine, but the reason was something I couldn’t then articulate: over the course of several years, my status as a Russian immigrant had somehow become a positive and not negative attribute on my character sheet. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but here’s how it started. Coming to America in 1991, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union but after a good deal of cultural references portraying Russians as either villains or broke drunks, was not a totally stellar experience. I mean, ok — probably better than not coming to America at all, fine. But given the option, I would have done something about our timing.

Elementary school was full of uncomfortable, incomprehensible moments: I was reprimanded for saluting teachers, nearly held back a grade for not knowing the word “dinosaur,” and ceaselessly groomed into suppressing my foreignness. This last part is a common experience, Antonia Darder writes in a paper on the politics of forgetting. Many children refuse to speak their native language even at home, “insisting on answering and speaking to their parents in English — what they already begin to perceive in their young minds as the legitimate language of power.” This power comes at a cost: an American accent now scars my Russian, perhaps permanently. For some young immigrants, though, such a cost is miniscule compared to potential gain. My own experience saw nothing beyond name-calling and ridicule, but almost a third of immigrant children report physical bullying, according to a 2007 survey from Massachusetts schools. Middle school is hard enough on its own; imagine forcing yourself to be repulsed by your home, your food, your language.

Every teenager has their own coping strategies and I eventually washed up on the shore of “embrace your flaws,” willing myself to own my crooked teeth, small breasts, bad heritage. I wore old Soviet pins on my lapel, begged everyone around me to read Joseph Brodsky, and ran a personal blog called Eggplant Caviar. By the time I received American citizenship at age 16, James Bond detritus had turned from resin to amber: being Russian now held a vague cachet of sexiness. My triumph at this fact, however, was short-lived. Now that being Russian was finally acceptable, I found myself being disqualified from the designation. It was non-immigrant Americans who did this, mainly. When I mentioned being born in a foreign country, classmates born during their parents’ Paris vacations said “me too,” as if there was no difference. And when I said I was Russian, these classmates and coworkers said “you’re not.” Sure, by this point I had lived in America ten years, but what did that have to do with anything? Was it that I didn’t have an accent in English? That I “looked” American? If Russianness is defined by a lack of Americanness, I admit I fail. I am good at being an American. I have tried very hard! Worse though is to imagine Russianness defined by the degree to which its presence negatively impacted me. When I was bullied for being Russian, I was Russian. When the bullying stopped — my birthplace was no longer something my peers acknowledged.

At this, shame sank in. My self-preservation had worked too well; I began to decline nouns incorrectly, my whip-fast English reading skills slowing to a snail’s pace when faced with the Cyrillic alphabet. I was no longer sure I could spell anything correctly, but to admit to this in front of my parents was impossible. There’s something infantilizing about language mistakes — to have my parents correct a basic Russian sentence terrified me. Maybe my classmates were right: I wasn’t Russian, after all. How could I be, if my fluency was fallible? If it took ten minutes of reading to regain the ability to scan sentences versus discerning meaning letter by letter by word? What did it ultimately say about me, when a friend asked a question involving Russia and I, the self-proclaimed Russian, didn’t know the answer?

And, what would be the consensus if 50 Russian citizens were polled regarding my status? “To them this is an American aberration,” Joshua Fishman writes in a paper adapted from a 1994 speech at the Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium — not about Russians, but about representatives of the Greek church and the Armenian church in the United States: “They ask ‘Can you be Greek Orthodox without knowing Greek?’ ... it never happened before in Greek history. ‘Can you be Armenian Orthodox without knowing Armenian?’ Armenians have a saint associated with their language. That is how holy they feel Armenian is. The alphabet is of saintly, sanctified origin. But in America the question has arisen ‘Can you be Armenian without the language?’ Spanish, which is a colonial language, has had much language loss associated with it, particularly in New York City. There is now an intergenerational study that confirms it, following up the same people and their children. ‘Can you be Hispanic without speaking Spanish?’ It is a new question to ask, and the truth is that everybody now has a nephew or a niece who does not speak any Spanish. Something is felt to be deeply wrong there, and the sense of loss is very deep.”

In 2002, I inherited my mother’s new American citizenship. She had completed all the tasks, finished the quest — from moving us here to studying for the naturalization exam. All I had to do was show up for the ceremony. I remember leaving high school before 3rd period and standing in a room with a bunch of other immigrants; I remember the giant American flag we had on the living room wall for months afterward. And in front of government officials and strangers, I remember renouncing my Russian citizenship. Curiously, Russia refused to renounce me. I am still considered a citizen by the Russian government, which means I cannot visit my home country on an American passport and visa. There is a way to get a Russian passport — my mother needed one several years ago to visit my Babushka Vera as she lay dying in a Moscow hospital — that I don’t fully understand. Imagining myself in a hypothetical airplane, though, it feels impossible. To make this trip I must show one passport to one country, one to another. I would be a citizen of both, or just one (which one?), or wedged irretrievably between the two like a piece of bread fallen behind the toaster.

Meredith Talusan’s essay “On Living Between Homes” explores the edges of country and gender, of immigration and transition: “Like immigrants to the US, trans people who’ve moved from one gender to another are often expected to pick sides, to forget what we lost along the way just because we’re now in a happier place. There might be immigrants and trans people who are completely happy in their new homes, but I am not one of them. My relation to home, both in place and in gender, will always be conflicted and fraught. And being an immigrant helps me navigate my difficult feelings about gender as a trans person.” I am a non-binary person and a Russian American. On the surface, I am an American woman. There’s a difference, I want to say. The difference means something.

It makes me think of reconsolidation, the English word for calling up a memory and memorizing it anew every time, each summons weaker until the spell no longer works. A process where repetition disintegrates rather than strengthens — not a computer, nor a muscle, but a solitary confinement where no one can confirm or deny your story; you are your only witness. Most days I do find that this is enough. I’ve written down my mother’s recipes; I can make pelmeni and piroshki s kortoshkoi and vinigret with the best of them. This week, I swallowed my fear and agreed to translate a colleague’s interview into Russian, because it felt absurd to deny the request just because I might make a mistake in the text. Refusal felt more absurd than being a Russian who makes errors in Russian. Don’t I make errors in English, too? I think about what my friend Gala Mukomolova wrote for the Poetry Foundation: “because of my Russian tongue that I drag behind me like a dumb limb, the two of us often run up against the dead end of language.” I will always be up against this dead end, my languages and histories a wizard’s transformation chase, each attempting to assert dominance over the other. I can accept that—and also pack an axe for the thicket.


Sonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They are the author of Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015), a debut poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival, as well as the chapbook, My Heart In Aspic from Porkbelly Press. Find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at sonyavatomsky.com and @coolniceghost.

Go to SPD or Amazon or Sator Press or directly to the author to purchase a copy of Salt Is For Curing.


More of this year's essay series:
Ka Bradley, Naming and Its Discontents
Jayy DoddThe Impossible Outside (or, A Zumbi's Autopsy)
Liz Howard, Naming and Its Discontents
Victorio Reyes, Discovering Existence - A Cross-Textual Essay
Sophfronia ScottOf Flesh and Spirit

To see more essays from last year, go here.

To see current news for the press including our next book, go here.

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