The Silence of the Mothers

Dalia Staponkutė is a Lithuanian essayist and translator living in Cyprus. After graduating from St. Petersburg University, she taught philosophy in Lithuania. With the fall of Berlin Wall she moved to Cyprus, where she translates literature from Modern Greek to Lithuanian, is completing a PhD in English and continues to write non-fiction in her mother tongue. Her collection Rain Versus Sun was nominated for the 2007 Book of the Year In Lithuania. The essay appearing here is from that collection.

Whether I like it or not, in this our present age of intercontinental peregrination, I—a migrant, a multilingual mother, and a person who wanders across cultural spaces—strain my travel-worn noggin as I brood on the issue of uni-lingual parents and their multi-lingual, 'mixed' offspring. I could even say it is a sort of drama, one in which my personal experiences have ended up playing a not insignificant role. At the same time, I am taken aback at the mountains of variegated feminist writings in which so much space and mental energy has been devoted to the topic of women and men; to their never-ending argument; to the misery of sexual solitude; to sexual discrimination; to people's sexual anxieties; to the voice of the feminist ego; meanwhile, there is only an eerie void when it comes to taking a proper inventory of the dialogue between a mother and her child, where a serious and analytical one is needed. In the literary- linguistic plane, there is barely a whiff of such dialogue: it seems that it’s not a simple matter, or perhaps it is an unrewarding task to move it from the cozy web of everyday sensuality and place it under the light of linguistic discourse, thus turning it into a weightless abstraction. Mothers do not elaborate much when it comes to their children (not even the mothers gifted with 'voice' and imagination), or else they do so only on the level of everyday life, not in any fundamental manner. (And even when they speak about them on that humdrum plane, they are usually mistaken). Mothers have children; often, paradoxically, without grasping that they have them in their totality. At this point, I am itching to insert a mention of Henri Bergson’s idea of vital impetus, or élan vital, about life as a coherent system: one cannot conceive of a hand as anything other than a body part, for example. And, one probably cannot conceive of a child as anything other than a part of a mother’s body. If we pursue this line of logic and take it a bit further: one probably cannot imagine a child without its mother's native language. This element seems to be so crucial that without it a pall of doubt is cast over the integrity of the ‘system’, its ties, its relatedness, its essence, and, finally,its traditions and values. Perhaps it might be too crude to touch upon the notion of death here—as if the bond between mother and child were severed altogether without the native language—but in reality many losses are indeed suffered in such situations.

I encounter precisely this situation on a daily basis, and see how it affects the linguistic relationship between mothers and their children. I have in mind concrete instances—ones such as my own—which have seen Lithuanian women and men, single and married, migrating perennially or because they are on some sort of mission, having landed in their chosen, or promised, no-man’s-lands, drawn thereby the wiles of sex tourism, or a better class of work, or the lure of the Cinderella myth, and so forth. For the majority of these people, the sudden change in their relationship to their mother tongue and their assimilation into a different linguistic environment seem to proceed quite painlessly, leaving only a faint trace, like a mild rash that comes from rubbing skin against stubble. In this process, time and place become not foes but dependable co-conspirators. But the new linguistic space and the time lived inside it present a real threat to the dialogue between mother and child—to its mystery, content, and intimacy—along with a challenge that is not easy to face sustainably. The migrant mother often ends up sacrificing the child to the foreign place, which gradually replaces the mother and, like an authoritative guardian of language and culture as well as a strict and systematic teacher, welcomes its new 'pupil'. Which is when it dawns on you: mother, place, and language are organically intertwined elements, parts of the chain of life that, once broken, can never be forged anew. A migrant mother's every step is marked by sacrifice and loss. Moreover, by allowing a foreign language to exist between her and her child, she is doomed to a stony silence.

I have never witnessed gloomier scene: a mother sitting silently amid her children who are twittering away in a foreign language; or, a mother whose vocabulary in her adopted tongue consists of a sum-total of five words, muttering something along the lines of: 'you-me-come- give-hand.' ‘Mummy, are you by any chance a mummy?' mocks the snotty child of a Lithuanian mother and a Greek father while she, during a lively Greek conversation, keeps strangely mum. Who is this ‘mummy’? How does she feel? Can she play with words? What can she—a mute—offer other than infinite and unyielding boredom? The mother is passive, alone, and self-contained, but the environment, with its sounds and colours, is a fast-paced, magical, 'Harry Potter-like' kaleidoscope. Children born outside the space of their mother’s native language or their mother’s homeland 'disavow' their mothers as soon as they learn to walk. Children, even little pip-squeaks, manage to jump across the chasm separating their mothers from their locale with such alacrity that the mother from a strange land ends up stranded on the other side before she can even manage a gasp. If she wants to keep pace with her offspring in a foreign linguistic environment, she has no choice but to become a child herself—spry, receptive,and tomboyish. Surrounded by the echoes‘ fishtail rhythms, all hopes of suckling the child on its mother tongue come to nothing. The Great Mother archetype, that is to say the mother's thirst to dominate her child linguistically, is common only to romantics and anarchists. But even such parasitoid be would not be enough to save these mothers from the verdict of silence because it is the place-cannibal that, in the end, decides the child’s language.

Such mothers—these silenced ones—are multiplying and, along with their ever-spreading silence, we hear more and more aggressive chatter about globalisation, which brings the world to heel; one might say it is a sort of revenge on the muted mothers, or perhaps it is the outcome of their silence. It is believed that globalisation helps mankind in the fostering of humanist feelings, and in the promotion of tolerance of the other: your pain is my pain. Alphonso Lingis, whom I like to refer to as a philosopher of anthropology, offers enlightening reflections on the matter. His works, out of patriotic sentiment it would seem, are being translated by Lithuanians, who are genetically close to him; Greek professors on the other hand, upon hearing his name, flash a polite smile of ignorance. It would seem as though even the most intriguing texts dealing with the phenomena wrought by globalisation are not read globally. They only pique one's curiosity in that space where one has at least the tiniest reference point. Or, more precisely, only that which dislocates global. Which is why to ignore the phenomenon of the maternal language would probably mean doing injury to globalisation or, at least,—to its bright side (we know that all global processes have positive and negative outcomes). I see that the only possible way out of this confusion lies not in a negation of language, but in shuttle translation. Translation is something that's not limited to linguistic technique; it absorbs the entire body, and even more than that— it requires a historical approach to the body. Lingis calls this 'historiographic thinking': conceiving oneself as a product of history, translating from outside to inside, and from inside to outside. If not, then perhaps the growing migration, the exchange of women as commodities, the epidemic concept of globalisation would not have any meaning other than the return to a lifestyle that resembles the primordial co-existence of tribes, whereby inert values are overshadowed by natural forces or capital, and the mother’s tongue is cast as ideas a trinket, replaced by more practical things, by intimidation, and by mental stagnation.

Globalisation, as an inexhaustible stream of both life and hazards, is rather more reminiscent of a force of nature, which is why simply being born or giving birth within such a force means almost nothing other than pain. But to be able see oneself as an integral part, let us say, of a system of symbols, let's call it place, and to create your own space within it, to infuse it with life and defend it with the zeal of a romantic anarchist is perhaps the only way of reducing this pain of motherhood and of avoiding silence, so that one might obtain a voice. Saddest of all is that mothers have no time for this undertaking, and that the biological clock ticks louder and more annoyingly than any inner callings,since a woman’s body is cyclical —always waxing and waning—and therefore easily worn out, and its language is stronger than language itself.

Continuously plying the same route, Lithuania-Greece-Cyprus, I meet dozens, no, hundreds of Lithuanian girls who have become the wives of foreign men and the mothers of their children, and who have never really spoken any other language than their mother tongue. The biological clock hurries them along: sadly, the time devoted to children and husbands is irretrievable! ‘ And how do you talk to each other?' I ask one long-legged beauty queen at the airport. And she, flashing a pearly white smile, answers: ‘Who needs language? I have fingers, sometimes I have to sketch things if they've gotten, listen, on the home front you know ... silence is golden, and in bed, well, we make enough sounds.' Or, one Greek acquaintance related the impressive story of his trip to ‘The Land of the Penguins’ (which is how Lithuania seemed to him from the airplane) to propose to his chosen one, armed with only a single declarative sentence in English: ‘I love You.’ The woman of his dreams knew no more English than he did. After experiencing cultural and intestinal shock from Lithuanian‘hospitality', his feet—clad in his southerner's shoes—frozen, hiccupping from the robotic I-love-you proffered in any and all situations,he nonetheless hauled his woman away with him. His scheme fell into place: the couple married, settled in the land of the Greeks, had kids, and are still living together in their mystical linguistic circumstances. Their children don’t speak Lithuanian; the mother speaks no Greek though she’s picked up a smattering of English ... I know hundreds of stories like theirs. Yes, feelings can mean more than words, more than the person herself knows about them, but I am left wondering how one expresses them without language? Language likes to torment but not suffer and, during the course of time,it takes its own back—it out-waits and takes its revenge on the Little Mermaid for her beautiful legs, turning her inner worldlier. Mothers who are unable to talk to their children in their native language feel a piercing nostalgia, one for which there is no analgesic, just as there is no possible return of the good ship Motherlandia.

What is most interesting is that in those mixed couples, language oftentimes ends up receding from the erotic play (if it didn't, there would be no such couples, because the partners involved would all die—not of pleasure but of laughter). An intimate word uttered in an unfamiliar language is lifeless, resting on the lovers' bed like a fallen petal; the sweetness of familiar words and meanings does not seep into the bodysurf, and wordless petting is transformed into nothing more than daemonic raving of the flesh. At first this can seem fascinating, because different races of people are attracted to each other just as strongly as they repulse. Nonetheless, without the plenitude of language, the union soon begins becoming deformed; if the couples’caresses are not accompanied by rich erotic phrases, their love becomes as deserted and harsh as an arid land. And yet ... how outdated my musings on this subject seem when one considers that such couples and such relationships are multiplying. Their offspring, though born out out of wordless convergence, swim like fish in the waters of multilingualism, choosing their language not according to mother-knows- best, but according to their being in the here-and-now. And it is precisely in this manner that the concept of the cosmopolitan reaches its fulfillment—an inhabitant of the world for whom the mother tongue is not a prima donna. This also creates new ramifications for contemporary family bonds: for children, the maternal or paternal feelings found in their immediate environment can and, not infrequently, are of greater importance than the caring feelings of their biological parents.

As I observe the agonia (the mortal combat) of my native language on my children’s lips, I behold the image of my own vanishing .. . And I must have faith in theories of translation and seek refuge in the contemplation of global realities. Practice alone does not suffice,because it is depressing. It is not enough to live without thinking about how to live in the new situation. Thought without practice is doomed, like raw hardwood that ends up serving as mere fuel. Theories, like religions, like promises of love, deform the image of reality to a certain extent,though they can help both to explain and to get through life's inevitable, unmerciful, and cruel losses and betrayals. What’s interesting is that even in our disavowal (of our native language, I mean), we yearn for soothing and familiar phrases, whispering them in prayer.

Nicosia, November 2004

Translated from the Lithuanian by Darius Ross

Darius James Ross is a Canadian transplant to Lithuania who has reported extensively on the country, and translated widely from Lithuanian literary prose, for the Vilnius Review and the annual 'Nordic Summer' literary forum, as well as for other events and publications. He is currently living in the rough-and-tumble Vilnius working-class district of Karoliniškės.