On the Politics of Italics

Jumoke Verissimo Wonders When It's Right to Highlight Difference

I.

I want to write about the politics of italicizing non-English words, so I will start by introducing myself as a bilingual author who speaks Yoruba and English language. Like many bilingual authors, the world leaps from many places for me; one exists where thought is birthed and forged, another where thought becomes utterance and text, and then there’s the audience’s reception of that interpretation of the world. My bilingualism is a “privilege” until I write, and the use of a typeface—the italics—which would go unnoticed in the work of a monolingual author becomes a subject of debate of political significance in my writing, questioning the authenticity of my being “privileged,” or “unprivileged.” My argument, as better presented back to me by a friend: the use of typeface is not value-free, it generates its own meaning and can transform that which it represents. To choose a typeface like the italics, slant and bowed, is apparently to acknowledge subjugation and erasure. But is that true?

Through conversing with my bilingual writer friends, I see they, like me, still battle a subtle politics within themselves, questioning: am I obligated to translate the (un)privileged position that the monolingualism of colonizing powers come to associate with being bilingual in my writing? By translating, I mean unfurling the philosophical nuances, the untranslatable terms acquired from a mother tongue like my Yoruba into my acquired English, which I write in, a language where utterances are shot like arrows from a skilled archer—you either miss or hit.

I however do not see my bilingualism any other way than as a privilege. For instance, when I converse with those who understand the two languages I speak, we find ourselves enriching English with our Yoruba worldview, livening up its lower pitch; while embellishing Yoruba, by puncturing its tonality with sparse English words in a way that demystifies its complexities to the unacquainted ear. Then there’s another dimension, I am a city bred—born and raised in Lagos, where the colloquial Yoruba is spoken. Whenever I write I am interested in how the space my characters are in colors how they speak. For instance, my Yoruba comes without the rustic originality that has root words for everything. I am from that space where my interactions with several groups has declared my Yoruba generative; one capable of evoking new slangs from motor park jokes, fuji music, or even political lingos that would make meaning in any beer drinking gathering.

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Even when I am away from the space where I grew up in, language for me remains generative. In other words, my Yoruba, like English, has a history of enabled relations and interactions, which makes it a product of context and space—and this, is never neutral. Relationships foster new meanings for all parties involved, either as the dominant or the subordinated language. This is the same for my characters. Hence, employing the English grammar either as a typeface or a rule, is for my manipulation, and I will write it the way it communicates the embodied worlds that the languages I speak privileges me to own. This is the awareness that plays in my head when I’m writing the dialogue of a character using the two languages. Consider the tinge of this dialogue from my novel, A Small Silence, for instance: “God will kuku protect you from all these children bringing their afflicted head from home to the campus.”

Here I try to capture the carefree yet punchy ways of speaking of those in Isale-eko, the pulsating heart of Lagos. Understandably, unlike speaking, writing requires a skill that entails one to give the textual an audile capacity in the mind of the reader. An understanding of how space—a place where meanings are produced by social and political relations—affects how we speak, informs the way I see language and how it functions in my writing. When I write, I find myself asking myself the question: How do we write this character’s words into this space? What writing style makes meaning of the world in their head and the setting this character is in? What can I do with the a typeface like the Italics? To italicize of not to italicize?

 

II.

I acquired English as a result of formal, Western education. I still have memories of the class prefect drafting names of those speaking vernacular in school. Without repeating the seminal arguments in Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, I’ll simply write: My bilingualism wasn’t a choice, it was as a result of colonial legacy and interactions. It is the one I write in the most—actually, all my books are written under the influence of the English language of Great Britain. You can say this is the ricochet of colonial mentality that informs the educational policy of my country. Perhaps, currently studying in North America will bring a newer tinge to how I see this interaction. However for now, this is what it is.

The other truth is that writing in English amplifies my voice in a distracted world, which also wants to flatten difference. However, as I am of two worlds, there is no way what I write in English would not find my Yoruba self in it. It is not impossible to achieve, rather for me, it is important to achieve a commingling of the two languages in my writing. It is like I mentioned earlier, the “enriching” and “embellishing” dynamics. I am too aware that in this dynamic, the non-hegemonic language will be the one to fall flat and unelevated, remaining an embellishment. Italics are therefore an assertion of selfhood, made self-evident in my creative writing. It is how to tell my readers: I am not of one world.  Knowing when I use the italics, I am inviting the reader to pause and reflect on the fact that they have stumbled on another world with all its flourishes.  In my usage, I am therefore not consenting to othering, I am ordering the language as I intend it to be used.

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Today in the context of an imperialist world, being bilingual serves its purpose, or else I’d be among those affirming self-serving views that assumes the linguistic transparency that monolinguists have of themselves. And I do not say this with any vile intention; it is only normal to see a world based on your worldview—and one language is a limitation. It is what it is—an ode to the unitary of truth of politicized monotheism at the root of Western philosophy and its attendant logic. Yet, I will say that being bilingual is an appealing defect. It means I will constantly be reminded to contemplate issues of access, privilege and style when I write in English. It is the colonial legacy. It is the neocolonial tension. It is the reason we are constantly arguing about the use of italicizing non-foreign words, and this is not just for English. It could be in Yoruba text where the English would have to be the intrusive outsider.

Italics are an assertion of selfhood, made self-evident in my creative writing.

I can explain this even better with the analogy of someone with eye defects. Being bilingual is like someone with double vision requiring bifocals. A lens that affords an opportunity to merge two imperfections into an embodiment of perfection. As a bilingual person, I do not have the monolingual mindset where everything is enveloped in my world. This lens refines my vision of the world; the one that enables a distinct power unavailable to the monolingual speaker. You can now call me the bifocal monolinguist—someone whose lexical knowledge and influences resist unilateral centering, who takes from one language and informs the second language of its deficiency. Hence, speaking in two languages but writing in one means I wear a lens that sees things that fall in the margins of the monolingual speaker. I, the one of two worlds, or more, am a person fashioned to swim in ideas that express a cocktail of experiences witnessed in two languages.

A bifocal monolinguist author like me is constantly struggling with the decentering that happens to one aware of being embodied in two worlds through languages. Thinking in the mother tongue, the Yoruba where my cultural identity and philosophy is formed in; and writing in the English language signals for me the containment of experiences like imperialism, displacement, rupture, travel, knowledge, adaptation, and migration. It also allows me to question the promiscuous yet suspicious nature of the English language for foreignness, which it is eager to accept only if it leans over—italicized—a reverential bow that recognizes that the world of the imperialist is a space for subjugation. I am not sure those who are engaged in the politics of the italics are also interested in the typeface as a trope for their arguments. Yet, to convince myself of my use of the italics I need to dialectically engage its function in my writing as a bifocal monolinguist, with many shades of experience that the language is privy to performing.

 

III.

Any time an essay, a tweet, a Facebook post brings my attention to the politics around italicizing foreign words, I take a shallow contemplation, and move on. Yet, after I submitted the manuscript of my novel to the editor, in one of those many emails between editor and writer, she wrote, “I noticed that you want to keep the italics for Nigerian terms, I wonder why this decision given the current debate about italicizing, which I am sure you are aware of?” I knew it was time to bring my reflections to light. My response below led to her suggestion that I should reflect further on the meaning and politics of italics:

My audience: Those words have no assimilation in English language, and if a non-yoruba picks it, white or brown, they’ll still need to learn the words.

Yet it stands as a political statement on the real sense of language and borders, inclusions and exclusion, otherness and personhood. Italics are not highlighters of foreignness, my story already says that. Italics for me says, this border where I’m standing is my side of the story and you’re welcome to enter into this world.

Language is a world, and italicizing those words emphasizes everything about today’s world languages. I know who I am, and italics don’t deemphasize the absence of privilege, it emphasizes it.

My first question to myself was: How does the use of italics facilitate the communication of my “privilege”?

First, I reflected on Junot Diaz’s visual potpourri of Spanish and English in his writing, and the originality it presents. I wondered, how it makes meaning of the idea of the bifocal monolingualism, which I have convinced myself sounds rather sophisticated to the ear. Hence, I questioned if I was in anyway privileging one language over the other, in my use of italics.

When I’m being told to tell my story, the italics as emphasis ask—do you want to listen?

My resolve was that I write for an English-speaking audience (not just an English speaker)—people aware of the encompassing and mutating capacity of the language and its relationship with other tongues and spaces it finds itself in. I am also aware that I have contemplated the world in Yoruba more than I have in English. In a larger context, I see the world from my Yorubaness, and then my Nigerianness. Therefore, the English I write and speak in is nothing but my way of reasserting my world, as achieved in books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Therefore, outside the facileness of privilege, using italics registers my unwillingness to see my humanity as other do, outside the normative order of things.

The use of the italics is to in fact assert the privilege of my personhood, which I believe the italics announces in my writing. This is how I shift the gaze and force attention to the lingual hybridity as a state of my existence. This is found in the Yoruba that becomes English, the philosophy, the values, the generations of persons performing genealogy on my tongue; the city of multi-ethnic groups becoming a colloquial language that makes each day go by quickly. This cannot be a slant bowing down of a typeset representative of my language’s subservience to another, it is I believe in this instance, a recognition of distinction in the world of the colonized; a perpetual reminder of the incompetence of English to assimilate and magnify/signify my worldview. This is where I stand on the use of italics in my writing currently.

 

IV.

Italicizing serves a function in writing and I see it as that, only with an awareness that I am bilingual and privileged to expands its function more than it is aware of. For me, I move beyond the argument of italicized words jarring during reading. This is because, with or without italics the bilingual author assumes that space of being understood sufficiently, but never completely. Bad writing is bad writing and googling unitalicized word will not (re)solve the ratio as some have suggested we do.

Italics serve me. By telling my own story, I already discomfort anyone who doesn’t want to be reminded that mine is a voice capable of speaking from two places. My writing embodies my experiences and those handed to me. Hence, when I italicize words in my writing, I am aware these words do not have an assimilation in the English language—textually and otherwise—and if a non-Yoruba speaker reads it, white or brown, she’ll still need to learn the words and its context. One of the aims of being a writer is to help the reader broaden their worldview—maybe, this is idealistic, but I stand by this.

For me, there is also that point of significance—especially for the political argument of otherness. The point at which the reader stops to see the “foreignness” the reminder of the existing otherness that trails my attempt to communicate my story. When I’m being told to tell my story, the italics as emphasis ask—do you want to listen? Are you reading with your being, aware that the world does not revolve around you? Can you please step out of the box and see that this is a political statement on the real sense of language and borders, inclusions and exclusion, otherness and personhood. This is what and how you have produced a language that institutes imperialism, but which I use to do as I like. For this moment, I do not intend an erasure by instigating an activism that blinds an imperialist language into compliance. There’s already an eruption in the bifocal monolingualism that I translate into my writing.

I, in my emphasis, as an Italics—stand out, bend over in reflection, not kowtowing under linguistic oppression. I, as the Italics do not just highlight foreignness; my story already says that this is my story. Hence, Italics for me, as me, says, this border where I’m standing is my side of the story and you’re welcome to enter this world. Italics emphasize my world—the way I choose to introduce our language to you.

I know who I am, and italics don’t deemphasize the absence of privilege, it emphasizes it. Abi?

______________________________________

Jumoke Verissimo’s debut novel, A Small Silence is now available. Published by Cassava Republic.

Jumoke Verissimo
Jumoke Verissimo
Jumoke Verissimo writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. She has published two collections of poetry; I am memory won the Carlos Idzia Ahmad Prize’s First Prize for a first book of Poetry, and the Second Prize for the Anthony Agbo Prize first book of Poetry, and The Birth of Illusion was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Poetry Prize and longlisted for the NLNG Prize. She has also published a chapbook with Saraba Magazine, titled Epiphanies (2015). Her poetry has been translated into French, Chinese, Japanese, Macedonian, and Norwegian. Jumoke is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. A Small Silence is her debut novel.





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