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“What do you say over and over when no one hears you?”

June 29, 2012

I quite like the way language and words are reified in Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver

The most obvious single example comes in the form of the dictionary and its connection with Donald, the abusive husband/newspaperman:

“Katharine wiped tears from her eyes, stood up and carried the dictionary downstairs to the kitchen.  Tore out pages, scrunched them and placed them in the range.  Lit a match.  She tore out more and fed the flames, which flared with such intensity, consuming his words. …She added twigs, thin branches, a small log, and still she fed the flames, watching pages wrinkle and burn… She stirred the dark fragments – words, thoughts, memories their edges of fire falling into ash, till she held nothing but the leather cover, its sad, empty spine.” (p.73)

This represents more than just a symbolic burning of the language valued by her husband and ‘oppressor’. It represents the physicality of language in this novel. Words and language mix in with physical experience in all sorts of ways:

“His own wife had been pretty too … But how did gweilo say? More than pretty face? …What was the word Mrs McKechnie used? How had she described it? This emptiness, this hungry space about him.  If only he could express it in a foreign tongue, perhaps it would no longer belong to him.” (p.80)

Even in spite of the very sensual nature of the book, the relationships tend to hinge more on the power of language than on physical interaction… eg.:

“She hesitated. Turned to see Donald laughing furiously.  What had she said? What do you say over and over when no one hears you?” (p.49)

And again, at Donald’s funeral: “She needed to hear people speak of his life, his tragic untimely death. To give his absence form. Solidity.” (p.53)

Or when Katherine and Yung fight: “He [Yung] made her angry. For telling her what to do. What not to do. For lying to her. / They had been in bed together when she told him about Donald, how he’d taken her life, how he’d used language and power against her.” (186) …Then Yung tells her “’You think I like boys saying Ching Chong Chinaman, push over apples all bruised. Beat Fong-man?’ Now he was angry. ‘Brother says, no trouble, don’t get trouble. Your Bible says, turn cheek. How many cheek I got? You give cheek, more cheek, no face left…’ … ’Katherine, you don’t belong to him. Language does not belong to him. You think bad but don’t know China. How many Chinese women under man’s foot? How many can read? How many man? English is your language. Your gift. Write your name on it. Language not good or bad. Your mouth good or bad. Donald is dead man. You alive…’ She yelled at him. She was sick of men, and not just men, telling her what to do. She burst into tears. She knew he was right.” (186)

Even Yung and Shun’s relationship is full of the tensions of language (Yung is the one who writes home, who loves poetry – and Shun is the older brother who was never able to receive such an education…). “Yung says, We do not need to recognise their words; we do not need to interpret the raised syllable. It is there in a flicker of the eyes, the slight curl of a lip, in the muscles of the face, the way they set against us. He says, The body has its own language, as fluid as poetry, as coarse as polemic. / Yung has a way with words. He says the language of the body can be used as a weapon.” (p.7) …and it is significant, given this, that Yung is the one who is murdered because he dares to cross the racial divide… Yung’s body recieves the ultimate insult in this war of discourses…

The first chapter of the novel opens on the brothers’ Sunday morning walk. Insulted by a beggar willing to turn violent for their money, Yung laughs off the threat, while Shun worries; “Didn’t he know how dangerous it was? / Yung closed his ears. Already he was dreaming up a couplet.” (p.12)

I guess, I’m saying it’s all there from the beginning of the book – a theme we’re invited to work with from the beginning.  Even the first words of the prologue (in the voice of Wong Chung-shun!) are: “It is a lonely place where the Jesus-ghosts preach. They preach about love, about a god who died of love, yet in the street the people sneer and call out and spit, then on Sundays sing in the Jesus-house.” (p.7) … the tension between voice and action is obvious in these first words… language, body, violence, it’s all connected in this novel.

I haven’t really worked it out fully, but there’s enough there for a couple of articles/some really deep English classes!

Ref: Alison Wong (2009) As the Earth Turns Silver: a novel. Penguin Books: Auckland.

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