On Language – by Kanan Gole


To play a sound recording of the poem (recommended), click here.


Over a cup of chaha,
I stumbled over words
through a conversation
in a Marathi influenced by the American tongue.

My relatives and friends listened
their faces falling
and at that moment
in that conversation
the distance between us was much
further than that of the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve picked up languages until now
as a consequence of picking up my life and placing it in lands where
English rarely made an appearance.
Once I landed in a place deep with melanin that looked best in
the gold of the setting sun.
Where bodies moved to the rhythm of vudu drums
that beckoned the spirits to dance with them.

Mwen te aprann pale Kreyòl tankou moun yo
nan peyi kote deyo mon gen mon.

I learnt to speak Creole like those in a country where
(as the Haitians say to describe the endlessness of their injustices)
there are mountains beyond mountains.

Another was a place soaked in wine.
One that reverberated with the sound of heels tapping in time to flamenco.

Allí yo aprendí a hablar español.

There I learnt to speak Spanish
but not like the stunning men and women who made
it sound so sultry.

I learnt those languages through love
through dance and in the haze of drunken nights.
I devoured their dictionaries and remembered
the minuscule details of conversations held
on the back of motorcycle taxis
with my eyes staring at a sky that became less foreign each day.

My God, I miss those places
even though my heritage has no trace there.
We always crave things that are not already ours.

As a child, my parents insisted that I read Marathi fables
recite the barakhadi
and write it all down.
They insisted that I speak only in Marathi

and I?
I responded in that immigrant kid kind of way.
I didn’t want to learn Marathi

because its accent fell into my English one at school
because at that age, language is fluid and does not understand separation
and does not understand that in a white neighborhood
my melanin did not mix well
and neither did the slight slip of my tongue which was
so accustomed to the spice tin in our kitchen.

So I refused to learn the one thing that was the entire purpose of my parents’ efforts.
I refused to call my mother

Don’t get me wrong.

Mala Marathi neet yeta, baraka.
Mala Punyat ek varsha zalay.
Aani thoda pan Marathi nai shikle ya velat tar magh kai upyog ithe rahilyacha?
Thoda far shikliye

making up for all that lost time
learning to feel in this language
wrapping my tongue comfortably around the sounds
that never make an appearance in English

as it is only through language that we can belong to a place

Over a cup of chaha
I remain a bit soft spoken
but the words come to me, slowly, determined to be said properly.
Relatives and friends lean in closer to hear me
and they hold my hands in theirs and laugh
celebrating that yes, I am learning
about what is already mine.