A Bookshelf of One's Own
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.”
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.
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.