In America, Language Silences You: On Trusting Words When They Fail, Betray, And Redeem

Amanda Choo Quan Considers the Effects of Anxiety and Racism on the Writing Life

“It’s been a rough week,” Dr. Aruna Khilanani began her lecture, somewhat prophetically.

On April 6, the Forensic Psychiatrist and Psychologist was invited by Yale to give a lecture. “They knew the topic, they knew the title, they knew the speaker,” Khilanani, who has studied English and race theory, would later tell The New York Times. 

Khilanani’s rough week was in reference to “the trial”—presumably Derek Chauvin’s. The rest of Khilanani’s lecture has now been immortalized in global headlines that all read as though written by the same person. 

We are supposed to be shocked by this tropic story of a psychiatrist gone rogue—who, by confessing her fantasies of killing white people, is (can you believe?) no better than her criminal patients. These stories all imitated the intonation of the original, released on Bari Weiss’s Substack, where Katie Herzog wrote underneath a “leaked” recording of the lecture that she thought it to be an “elaborate prank.” 

Khilanani’s lecture is part performance art, part social experiment, reminiscent of the calling cards Adrian Piper delivered to white people at parties whenever they said something racist (a work acquired by the Yale University Art Gallery in 2017). Access to rage, she argues, is psychologically healthy. But even when Black and Brown people express their rage “appropriately,” to people like friends or psychoanalysts, it is still met with white denial. 

Khilanani’s lecture is part performance art, part social experiment, reminiscent of the calling cards Adrian Piper delivered to white people at parties whenever they said something racist.

So now, she’s permitting the white folk who should be most familiar with the mind’s darkest recesses a glimpse into how dark they can actually get. How will they react with the respectability stripped away?

Khilanani’s lecture is also literary. It is deliberately hyperbolic, seeming at times more fitting for the audience denied a space in the room (approximately two thirds of psychiatrists and Yale faculty identify as white). She asks the audience to pray for DMX. She references Dave Chappelle. On another listen, it is stone-cold serious. Not because it is threatening, but because it exudes a pain and a paranoia I understand.

For whatever reason, some participants in our culture grimace at the word “cancel.” But that is also what they tried to do. 

The Yale School of Medicine called her lecture “antithetical” to their values. The media largely ignored the fact that the same day Khilanani spoke about killing white people was the day a court debated whether the way a white person actually killed was justified. 

“I’m going to say a lot of things, and it will probably invoke a lot of responses, and I want you to just maybe observe them in yourself,” Khilanani prefaces her lecture. “Are you having moral responses to what I’m saying?”

In a recent interview, Khilanani answered those questions. She’s faced death threats. Her confessions of fantasy have been met with real-world white danger.

And here we are again, on the page or in the classroom or behind a podium, loud or soft, blunt or peaceable, facing yet another gesture of retribution when post-2020 whiteness believes itself to have given enough guilt, and Blackness has, in fact, given enough blood. An assault on our tongues, the truth, our minds. 

Even the metaphors are tired.

*

Growing up, I valued eloquence. I wanted to be a writer. 

Eloquence was American. It was big-haired morning talk show hosts who didn’t stutter. It was Robert Frost’s formalism, taught to me in my Catholic secondary school in Trinidad. It was the three-paragraph essay. It was conclusions that conclude. 

And here we are again, on the page or in the classroom or behind a podium, loud or soft, blunt or peaceable, facing yet another gesture of retribution when post-2020 whiteness believes itself to have given enough guilt, and Blackness has, in fact, given enough blood.

But when I arrive in the US much later, on scholarship to become a writer, it occurs to me that I can’t speak. 

Later, in a writing workshop, I will realize that I do that. Not not speaking. Rather, that when I write about myself, I relay things as I first describe them in my head instead of flat-out describing the action.

Like instead of the above, simply saying, “I’ve arrived in the US as a grown writer on scholarship. I can’t speak.” I won’t know where it comes from, this tendency to track the firing of my neurons back to its original source. Whether it is compulsive or protective. 

Whether it is a sign that, as a young writer, I’m finally receiving this gift from the gods, that slip of a thing called style. Or whether it is a line of critique on my nonfiction to read in shame, wondering who else can see that when I grew up an only child, my best friend was my own head. 

But here I am, a Caribbean woman with English as my first language, unable to use it. I am in the bus, and the bus is full of Americans, most of them white. It is a bus that will take me from LAX, where I think I’ve just seen Jennifer Garner and her Dimples, to Van Nuys, a place someone near me has termed “The Valley.” It is my first time in Los Angeles. I picture a depression.

Before I left for Los Angeles, I was invited to a last event in Trinidad. I was told that the writer was celebrated in the experimental poetry circles I would soon meet, though I only knew her for the YA novels she wrote long ago, included in my literature curriculum. It was M. NourbeSe Philip, born in Tobago, living in Canada, but in Trinidad for a spell. As she read from Zong!, an erasure of the Gregson v Gilbert case report. Zong was a slave ship that had thrown its cargo, 130 enslaved Africans, overboard. 

In a small yard, NourbeSe Philip performed poetry that was not poetry at all. She’d carved away at the report until all that was left felt like gasping breaths. She stuttered and shook. She wore white and moaned. 

But here I am, a Caribbean woman with English as my first language, unable to use it.

Is this who I was leaving to become?

On the bus, I stand in a cramped aisle. I am afraid to ask anyone with an empty space next to them to allow me to sit. It is a fear that is old but feels new again, like fresh sweat. I don’t know where to put my hands. 

That I would be the one to mute my voice was something I could neither predict nor control. I’d spent time in the US before, stretches of summers with friends from all over the world, Trinidadian and white and otherwise, eating pupusas at the Red Hook ball fields, flicking cheese off the same fingers I was too afraid to wrap round the handles built into the backs of the occupied chairs.

Meanwhile, my sudden meekness disturbed me. I arrived at the art school that housed my MFA, a weird, interdisciplinary program picked because I recognized my rigidity, and because I wanted to know what else my writing could do. But a month afterwards, two months afterwards, it wouldn’t go away. I’d freeze whenever somebody asked me about Borges or David Foster Wallace, neither of whom I learnt about at my Jamaican university. 

It was as though I’d already been primed to see my culture as inferior, a thing I’d absorbed and held in my head. A belief I didn’t realize I’d still had, since I’d spent all of my first degree reckoning with things like cultural hegemony, and Black respectability, eventually cultivating a pride in who I was and where I was from—despite myself. I’d originally gotten into Oberlin, but couldn’t go because of the money.

I never thought what would hold me back would be psychological. That I would develop habits around my anxiety, pausing whenever someone spoke to me so that I could translate my response in my head. I wasn’t just hyper-aware that my education seemed to have no place here—I was aware that my accent didn’t, either. I’d go to bed promising that I wouldn’t lose it, that I wouldn’t slant my vowels and bend my hard consonants just to be understood. 

I’d recount all the ways I saw people who’d come back to Trinidad with a slightly American accent after time abroad—a “fresh-water Yankee,” we call them, hilariously—would be treated with disdain. But even when I said my name it caused mild confusion. The woke and good-natured would imitate it the way I said it. This is why “man” translates to “mon” for Americans when Caribbean people say it, I realized, as people called me A-mon-da and I blithely smiled along. 

It was as though I’d already been primed to see my culture as inferior, a thing I’d absorbed and held in my head.

I’d eventually avoid words that I thought would highlight my accent altogether, using the vocabulary I suppose helped me win that scholarship to find synonyms that would help me express half a self. Sometimes, I’d just shut up.

There would certainly be times that I’d experience racism intimately and overtly. When the executor of my scholarship would berate me loudly in front of white faculty and esteemed guests for forgetting to hold a door open for her at a restaurant (my head was bowed while texting my friends, “I don’t belong here.”). That time my stepfather was hassled by a mall cop in the Glendale Galleria, who assumed with all the shopping bags that my mother and I piled on him that he was, in fact, homeless. 

But what I experienced among the white people at school was difficult to articulate. Many were friends, teachers I respected. There was an inherent shame in discussing my discomfort, in clarifying even to myself whether it hung in the atmosphere or whether it languished in my head—if it was the latter, all the better to deny its existence. But no. In my more lucid moments, and among my Black friends, I could admit that what I felt was real. My mind could relax because it was telling the truth. 

There was a reason why I knew, instinctively, why the people in my classes would not be interested in the Caribbean books I brought from home, or why I knew that my role with my white male friends would only ever be one of friendship. I peeled back memories of those long summers in Brooklyn, memories that held truths I’d blocked out, back then, as I experienced racism for the first time in the company of people I’d thought I liked. Before I arrived in the US, I thought that racism meant that people hated you. I didn’t realize that it could also mean disinterest, struggling to articulate myself as real in a world that either saw me as not worth its time, or wanted me to really know how guilty it felt for seeing me this way.

This compounded my desire to write about race and perform my work aloud, even though it terrified me. To resist the need to corral my thoughts into the metered verses I read in secondary school. My thoughts, it was clear, could not be corralled. They wandered, they doubted themselves, they double-backed, and frequently, they disappeared. In writing workshop, I was introduced to a new kind of frenzy, where I learned to speak about sentences and lines like the characters in that Jonathan Lethem story, aiming for the oddball and the experimental. 

Before I arrived in the US, I thought that racism meant that people hated you. I didn’t realize that it could also mean disinterest.

But my mind felt like an iron cage—a combination of this deep cultural insecurity, colonial rigidity, and doubt in my own capability. I was too insecure to even let things fall apart. 

And they did. Just not the way I thought.

They did when Trump was elected, when driving home meant wading through bullhorns and chants of white people saying that they didn’t want foreigners here. When going to a peaceful protest meant possible violence in the form of the Zionist, pro-Trumpers who followed us into our space, taking out their phones to film us, caring nothing about the fact that children were present.

They did when nowhere I went felt safe. When, in a donut shop of all places, something else happened that felt familiar, but new. I’d always battled with a pinprick of panic whenever I’d enter an elevator or airplane. But that day, my mind arrived at a conclusion that made absolute sense. Wasn’t the wide California sky, unblocked by low buildings and unblemished by clouds, a container too? Didn’t that mean I’d always be trapped?

As my friend drove me home, I faded. 

*

Anxiety has a color and a texture and a touch. Green and yellow, sticking your hand into a web of snakes, a numbing headache. The claustrophobia would never go away, but it would take me until five years later to ask for help. Until a couple of months ago, in fact. 

The psychiatrist told me that I had an anxiety disorder. I’d probably, we surmised, had it all my life. But with my mind under assault and my body unable to express it, my time in the US did it no favors.

*

I am not sure whether I still trust language, which so often fails us. That can be flattened and used against us when we express it honestly. That is picked apart for sport. That is disembodied and removed for context, or abandoned with a forgetting sigh when our culture collectively decides that it is time to move on, that it is time to leave it behind. 

Writing has never been sport for me, though it has sometimes treated me that way—a Loki-like character who has befriended and betrayed. 

I’ve been doing it ever since I was a child—compulsively. I was obsessed with record-keeping. I loved submitting myself to diction, to using my newly learned loops of cursive to follow someone’s else thoughts. I loved reading recipes, the ease of instruction, the simplicity of lists, the predictability of outcomes. You will notice that I enjoy the soothing, rhythmic balance of a sentence with three clauses.

When I was older, I became obsessed with journals. I devoured everything Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones said. I absorbed their lives, every cringey confession, even though no-one who mattered in these books were Black. 

When I read them now, I wonder about the child. The one who clung to these stories of elsewhere fiercely, slipping into the first person lives of fictional white people written by real white people for whom the Caribbean was and is, perhaps, only an evocative fantasy. There were books about Caribbean children that we were also made to read in school—Harriet’s Daughter, written by M. NourbeSe Philips, was one—but these were never the books I read for fun. 

Writing has never been sport for me, though it has sometimes treated me that way—a Loki-like character who has befriended and betrayed.

These books anchored me to reality when real life could not. When my single mother, an immigrant who has never felt like Trinidad was home, wandered with me from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, racking up so many landline numbers my friends never knew which to call. 

I wondered at the American families on television who ate around tables. I wrote myself into fanfiction about big city life. My fantasies were pretty, but pathological. In my pink, childhood journal is a list of boys who liked me. 

Now, I live in Trinidad and Tobago, where I returned after I decided not to pursue a work permit. My mother has been revealing her past to me slowly. As she speaks of her pain, I look at her fingernails. Her skin has trained itself to fold over narrow bitten slivers which no longer hurt. 

She says her past, her history, how she says it. How I imagine Black mothers, always bearing the burden, will continue to across the world with their own children—and within the US, where history and truth always seem to be under attack. When she talks to me, reading from nothing but the recesses of her own mind, I flinch. 

But I remember.

Amanda Choo Quan
Amanda Choo Quan
Amanda Choo Quan is a Trinidadian-Jamaican writer and literary organizer. She won the 2020 Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize—one of the region's most significant for emerging writers. Focusing on race, displacement and her homeland, her work appears in Harper’s Bazaar, NYLON, HuffPost, Caribbean Beat, Callaloo, and others. Choo Quan has been awarded fellowships from Callaloo, the Truman Capote Foundation, Juniper, and the Cropper Foundation. She is both a graduate of the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, as well as CalArts, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. She tweets @amandacq.





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