Report: Seven Thousand Songs

Victoria Adukwei Bulley on making MOTHER TONGUES

The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
   – Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

On a normal evening in January, a year and a half ago, I lay beside my mother on her bed. Although the television was on across the room, probably tuned to the news, we were on YouTube watching music videos by a singer named Anbuley. Anbuley, a stunning, lithe-limbed Ghanaian singer, has hair long enough for her to look like an African rendering of Eve. But this was not the reason for our watching. Rather, I had brought her to my mother for translation. She sings each of her songs in vibrant, forceful Ga, the language of my parents. Even now, she is the only contemporary artist I know of who does this and, since I don’t understand a word, my mother began to interpret for me.

My inability to speak or comprehend Ga is both surprising and unremarkable. Surprising, because my parents share this ethnic group, and have spoken the language to each other all my life. Surprising, also, because while I don’t understand it at all, I know its signature intimately. I’ve overheard it spoken between strangers on the street and guessed – with their confirmation – that what they were speaking was Ga. What, then, could be unremarkable about this? Nothing other than the fact that it is a very common experience. Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and writer, uses a daunting comparison to make this clear. “No biologist,” he warns in his essay collection The Wayfinders (2009), “would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” Davis goes on to summarise in more frank terms: “Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes.”

When I let these words sink in, I hear a forest full of birds. An orchestra of seven thousand songs that combine and sometimes clash to form a living, organic, polyrhythmic heartbeat of life. For whatever reason, some of the songs rise over the others. Forget, for this moment, about history; about colonialism or conquest. These louder songs carry the overall melody – perhaps they are the strings section. Other songs, in the meantime, are audible only rarely, and mostly not at all. They are the triangle that dings subtle-bright in the background, easily missed. As time goes by, these quieter songs disappear, or join the winning tune. The overall melody becomes homogenous and weighted, too heavy for itself to carry that sense of lightness that great music can invoke. It grows boring, first, then unbearable, then oppressive. It is without joy, or surprise, and is all that can be heard.

As I lay beside my mum in conversation that evening, a thought came to me. If, as had long been happening, I could approach my mother to translate Ga songs into English for me, why, then, couldn’t I ask her to translate my own work into Ga? If, as a poet who performs regularly, I knew my own work deeply, surely the access to Ga translations would enable me to become more familiar with the language as a step towards learning it. Then, another thought, or rather, a remembering: my situation is unremarkable. I don’t have enough fingers – and possibly not even enough toes – to count the individuals I know who do not speak the language of their parents. Knowing that a number of them are poets too, it occurred to me to think bigger about this small idea. Even where the language had survived the generational distance, was there not still something of value in the act of sharing and translation alone? That night, back in my own room, I scribbled everything down in a new notebook. I named each of my motivations and fears, then noted the names of the poets I had in mind. I wrote continuously for about five pages, and headed it all with the title MOTHER TONGUES.

A year and a half on, at the time of my writing this, MOTHER TONGUES is an intergenerational poetry, translation, and film project that sees four celebrated young, female poets in collaboration with their mother-figures. Each poet invites her mother to translate a poem into her native language. Later, the poet and mother visit a studio where the mother is filmed reciting her translation, followed by the poet reciting the original. A conversation is then captured between the two, prompted by questions (from myself) that aren’t heard in the final cut. Each ten-minute film features one poet-daughter and her mother, the poets being Belinda Zhawi, Theresa Lola, Tania Nwachukwu, and myself. The films debuted at Rivington Place Gallery in Shoreditch, London on Wednesday 26 July; tickets sold out within 48 hours.

In her non-fiction work, Big Magic (2015), Elizabeth Gilbert argues that ideas are formless yet living things. They go from place to place, or person to person, hunting desperately for a host within which to manifest. Beatified parasites, of a sort. Against the idea that artists hold ownership over their visions, Gilbert asserts that ideas “do have a conscious will; that ideas do move from soul to soul”, that they “will always seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth (just as lightning does)”. The core idea behind MOTHER TONGUES is, much like the issue it addresses, unremarkable. But because I felt that the concept was as worthy as it was simple, and because I subscribe to Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory of ideas, I said yes to the blessed parasite, and opened an Arts Council grant application.

Over a year would pass before I’d click submit. During this time, life would happen, as it does. I would tell a few friends and mentors about the project. I approached visual arts organisation Autograph ABP, based at Rivington Place Gallery, in hopes of screening the finished films there. I worked through the application slowly. August arrived, with its own surprises and personal traumas, offsetting everything indefinitely. While I recovered, Gilbert’s warning hung over my head: if you don’t “show up ready enough, or fast enough, or openly enough”, ideas are wont to go “hunting for a new partner”. By December, at a post-workshop Christmas dinner for the Barbican Young Poets, when Jacob Sam-La Rose asked if I’d submitted the proposal yet, I shrunk a little and said, no. I finally submitted it in February 2017. Ironically, I had grown tired of talking to myself about something that I wasn’t doing, and was willing to do anything – including submitting the application – to be rid of that guilt.

In June, with all filming done, my brother Elliot and I spent hours working on the final edits in his room. The process of assembling each film rested upon my indicating, as efficiently I could, the specific moments, phrases and gestures of the poets and mothers that best reveal who they are. Ninety percent of the time this went perfectly well – until it didn’t. The room got hot. An argument sparked up on a Sunday night. Something in the tone of my voice towards Elliot; something else in his responses to my requests. We left the room and had it out on the stairs. We went back into his room and got back to work, finishing the films that evening.

Through this dive into filmmaking, I discovered an art of elimination that has much in common with poetry. The entirety of the unprocessed footage is a freewrite; not yet a film, not yet a poem. The film, like the poem, emerges via elision. It is a chiselled selection of perspectives, voices and transitions, alongside grading, white-balancing and grain for atmosphere and tone. Yet none of this is possible without sufficient raw material to begin with. The camera must roll for long enough and the conditions must be right: is there enough light on the face of the subject, is the room soundproof (no), is there a fly in the room (yes), will that helicopter fly over again (of course). What you don’t or can’t account for in the raw, you work around later. Writing, by contrast, is more forgiving, and vastly less expensive.

All this aside, the MOTHER TONGUES films are beautiful. Four African languages are covered: Igbo, for Tania; Shona, for Belinda; Yoruba, for Theresa; and Ga, for myself. Each of us as poets are unique, with our own voices that, I somehow feel certain, will only become more and more a part of the innovative contributions that African and Caribbean writers have made to the literature of Britain. More beautiful than this, however, are the parts that our mothers played. I am endlessly thankful to Constance, Clare, Rose and Comfort for the love with which they wrote their translations; for their honesty in the interviews and their enthusiasm for their distinct cultures. Translation, we know, is not an exact science: words exist in one language that don’t exist in the next. Where there is no word for something it is likely that this something simply does not exist within the culture in question. As such, I anticipated a struggle of sorts. I imagined four new poems in languages that I don’t understand, with smatterings of English throughout. But there was no struggle. Each of the mothers felt that their translations expanded the originals. Watching the films, I can’t help but think that where we once had poems it seems we now have songs. Through their transmutation – for a listener who is a stranger to the language(s) – the poems land at the ear almost as musical compositions instead of texts. This is a testament to our mothers, and the richness of the cultures they hail from.

. . .

With the first instance of MOTHER TONGUES now complete, I look back as well as forwards. I consider my forebears, my parents and my grandparents, too much of whose futures depended upon a colonial demand to master the English language during their schooling. I go back even further and think of Kangidi Asuman, an ancestor on my mother’s side. Asuman, a surviving leader of a slave revolt in Bahia, stepped off a ship in Jamestown, Accra, in 1829, speaking only Portuguese. He and the seven other Afro-Brazilian families who arrived with him would become known as the Tabom people. The word Tabom is a phonetic descendant of tá boa, or está bom – the equivalent of all good – a response to the greeting, how are you (tudo bem), in Portuguese. And because, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes, “language is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history”, I know more about Asuman by his name alone. Kangidi is a place in Nigeria. Asuman relates to the Arabic name, Osman. It is not unlikely that before the horror of enslavement, my ancestor was first a Yoruba-speaking boy who once called upon God by whispering Allah.

What is more remarkable about language than this – that it is a palimpsest, speaking its own story below the deck of our everyday talk. Looking forwards now, I welcome the chance of future iterations of MOTHER TONGUES. Dreaming of travel, I think of the languages of the world, the seven thousand songs, and wonder how many I will be privileged to listen to in my lifetime. It will not be possible to hear them all. Some will be gone long before I reach them. But my hope is to archive the unique expression of a mere few. Poetry, I feel, is perfect for that.

The Poetry Review 1073 shadowVictoria Adukwei Bulley is a British Ghanaian poet, writer and filmmaker based in London. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 107:3, Autumn 2017. © The Poetry Review and the author.