A Bookshelf of One's Own
The year after Alice Munro—a Canadian short story writer—won the Nobel Prize in Literature, my family moved back to Toronto. In a used bookstore downtown, I discovered an entire shelf of “Canadiana”—a large portion of which was occupied by Munro’s books. Drawn by the title, I picked up “Who Do You Think You Are?” (published in the U.S. as “The Beggar Maid”) and began to read.
The collection of short stories chronicles the protagonist Rose’s upbringing in a poor town in Southern Ontario, under her practical but parochial stepmother. In the third story, “Half a Grapefruit,” Rose enters the local high school “across the bridge,” where she encounters a divide between the well-off students from the town and those from the country. The well-meaning but naïve teacher “asks what [students] had for breakfast, to see if they were keeping Canada’s Food Rules.” The country students ate “tea and porridge,” and on the other side of the classroom, the town students “claimed to have eaten toast and marmalade, bacon and eggs, Corn Flakes, even waffles and syrup.”
In Dublin, on the banks of the Liffey, I found a bookstore. I sat down by the window and picked up “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf, parts of which I had read in high school but had since forgotten. When I first read the book, I was not yet acquainted with either Cambridge, England or its Massachusetts counterpart. This time around, Woolf’s description of “Oxbridge,” as she calls it (she never makes it clear whether she is referring to Oxford or Cambridge) hit close to home. In the opening, Woolf’s narrator considers what to say in a speech she is invited to give about “women and fiction.” Absorbed in her thoughts, she starts walking across a grass plot, but not for long:
Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulation of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.
In Paris last spring, my friend took me to a bookstore called Présence Africaine. Named for the African studies magazine and publishing house that owns it, it is tucked away on an unassuming corner in the Latin Quarter. (I had been expecting, as she had said, a “library”—but it turned out that, having just walked out of a French class, she had confused the French word “librarie” for the English “library.”) In a corner of the store, I struggled to decipher the first pages of “Black Skin, White Masks” in Frantz Fanon’s original French. Fanon starts with a description of the black man who visits the colonial “métropole” France. “The black man has two dimensions,” Fanon writes. On the one hand, he will be treated as a “demigod” among his compatriots if he knows France, if he speaks “French French,” and if he can talk about what he saw in Paris. On the other, in his interactions with Europeans, he will be ever-so-vigilant not to slip up and reveal his accent. The colonized, he writes, “is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s culture standards,” not least the language—and the right and respectable way of speaking that language, namely unaccented, proper European. “To speak,” he says on the importance of language, “means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”
How is learning a language akin to supporting the weight of a civilization? According to Fanon, language is a “cultural tool”—its mastery promises upward mobility, but premises a perverse denial of self. This bargain reveals itself when you realize the effort it takes to master someone else’s tongue as if it is your own. Supposedly, anybody can learn a language. You might even expect that mastery of its grammar and vocabulary will grant you insider status. Or, understanding that language is subtler than that, you might think that perfecting your accent, understanding cultural references, and wearing the right clothes might give you an “in.” Here, “language” can refer to more than its literal meaning: How do speech and writing change to adapt to environments of business? Academia? At Harvard? The burden of adapting typically falls on the individual, rather than the environment. Think of an immigrant in a foreign country, struggling to integrate, or even a Harvard junior mirroring the mannerisms of a finance recruiter.