“Can You Speak English?” – Natalie Wee

Image: Israeli-Egyptian border, posted at Flickr by Cornelius Kibelka under a Creative Commons License.

The borders seem obvious now, but endangered bodies have always known the point of no return, and persisted past it, anyway. In Natalie Wee’s “Can You Speak English?”, a migrant family dares to arrive in America, where their unmapping begins as soon as the first checkpoint: they are called Haunting, instead of Huan Ting. If it seems innocuous, it isn’t. It is “A single / exhale dislocating phantom from girl.” This is how the splitting of self, to accommodate the expectations – the demands – of empire: this is how it starts. Not always with a blow. But with a word. And a word, after that. You can’t say it’s less menacing until or unless you’re the one whose mother tongue is being ransomed.

The poem casts up aching parallels between speaking the alien tongue of English and giving birth. When the mother of the family is menaced by the fluorescence of the next checkpoint, her stuttering syllables are described by the poem’s speaker as stillbirths. The act of creating this language for white consumption is as violent as is “birthing an unwanted / child to a pallid land that does not know it”. The entire poem explores this seemingly subtler, yet no less cruel navigation of language as an instrument of muzzling: how the tongue you are told you must learn to speak can be your ultimate silencing.

We are told, by the poem’s speaker, that “both a well-aimed question & / any instrument of torture require satisfaction / to cease their patient cutting.” What then becomes of you when you do not surrender to the demands of your torturers, for speech or for other safeguards showing you belong? As is chillingly fitting, the poem does not have answers for us. It cradles a mother’s skull, measuring the words before they fall to the ocean floor.

Read “Can You Speak English?” here.
Natalie Wee’s Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines was published in 2016 by Words Dance Publishing.

This is the twenty-seventh installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.