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Linked Tongues: Twelve Languages take a Stand against Nationalism

For so long, we have been taught to recognize others by how they differ from ourselves; we are a comparative species, and our tendency to think in patterns—to make sense of the world around us by compartmentalizing and categorizing all that we see—has resulted in a legacy of human discrimination.

Today, humankind is becoming abound by attempts to reconcile the harms we caused when we were afraid of diversity and intimidated by difference. We are beginning to recognize the fallacies in how we once rationalized inequality. Now, our world is increasingly shaped and informed by globalization, and it is therefore important to acknowledge the power and potential that lies at the heart of human diversity. We need to understand that our species maintains the unique gift of cooperation—a skill that is key to harmonizing human experiences; yet, despite these new socio-political shifts, we continue to confront individuals and groups of individuals who refuse to let go of antiquated belief-systems; their prejudices have resulted in human injustices that seem ill-fitted—inconceivable, even—for the times in which we live.

Nonetheless, poets and writers are reclaiming their power as diverse citizens as they tirelessly work towards shedding light on the nature of today’s discrimination. Through acts of self-expression, they convey some of the multi-dimensions that exist across humanity, and they do so in a manner that both celebrates our differences while also highlighting how human experiences are shared; they are universal, and we need to recognize that—despite our differences—we are deeply interconnected. Each of us is a kindred body.

During this year’s Mile End Poets’ Festival, artists are bringing these principles to center-stage as they seek to celebrate the universality of poetry and the multiplicity of the modern human condition.

“Languages become one when they are dancing together,” reads a young poet. She is illuminated under the soft lights of La Sala Rossa as she stands on-stage with nine others. Like her, they are poets, and each of them has an important message for us—a message they offer through a monologue spoken in twelve different languages. The act is called “Linked Tongues”, and it is dedicated to showcasing the multilingual intersections of poetry, as well as the cross-cultural art of spoken-word. But this particular event is so much more than a night for observing the linguistic variety of poetic prose. The show is an ode to human diversity, and it seeks to reveal some of the hardships surrounding intolerance in the face of today’s seemingly heightened nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric.

Performers recite poetry in their native tongues as they describe, in meticulous detail, some of their personal experiences of hate and discrimination. However, rather than perform each individual act separately, they weave every piece into a whole–the show becomes one unified narrative.

Their decision to coalesce through poetry and integrate each language into the performance bears a symbolism that is not lost on audience members. While seemingly different, their stories are essentially the same. Every poet represents a refugee, an expat, an immigrant, a traveler, and they have all, at some point, been a victim of exclusion and prejudice. Each has had to accommodate the values and rules of another land, sacrificing many of their own traditions and beliefs just to feel safe and legitimized in the new space they occupy.

The stories they share are told through a myriad of linguistic utterances, and unravels as an orchestra of Arabic, Spanish, Creole, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, and Persian. Throughout the evening, we even hear words spoken in the Indigenous language of Innu-aimun and the West-African language of Wolof.

We listen as languages are woven together on stage until they dance in unison before us—just as the first poet promised. Yet, even though we cannot understand in detail the contents of each poem, there is a raw and innate understanding that begins to nestle its way into our awareness. We learn that meaning does not necessarily require explicit form or substance. By learning to let go of our obsession with scrutiny, we abandon the risk of getting lost in the details, which allows us to begin paying more attention to the universal phenomenon that is Human Connection. There is an inherent ability that exists within us all that allows us to be receptive to meaning, even in the absence of more conventional understanding that comes with linguistic communication. This is what performances like these can teach us: Sometimes, messages are best conveyed by the sheer emotional force that lies behind the universal human practice of artistic self-expression.

Performances such as these, which demonstrate the unifying nature and power of poetry, have become so important amid today’s attempts surrounding reconciliation and the fight for human rights—particularly amongst the recent surge of hate-speech and the rise of anti-immigration attitudes following Donald Trump’s presidential election. These forms of poetry confront such perspectives by using art to demonstrate that stability comes from our willingness to foster diversity. Like a symphony, Linked Tongues creates a masterpiece by harmonizing multilingual forms of self-expression. In doing so, the performance shows us what society is capable of when it does the same. In this way, the performance can be viewed as a rebuttal to the nationalist anxieties and alarmist perspectives that surround much of today’s discussions about immigration and nationhood.

It is through poetry and spoken-word that we can begin to convey the humanity within us all. However, these forms of personal expression do not need our explicit understanding to be legitimized or accepted as art. Poetry itself is often rife with symbolism and hidden messages: it is figurative and complex, and it demands that we look at it closely, working to find meaning amid lines of metaphorical syntax and prose. Despite such cryptic nuances, it is the very nature of poetry that appeals to us as readers, which is why the performers of Linked Tongues ask us to consider these realities and apply them when we struggle to understand those with whom we differ. Indeed, we are mobilized by the poetry itself—not by our capacity to interpret what is said, but by our understanding that there is meaning and emotion underpinning every syllable—both foreign and familiar. If we allow ourselves the mindfulness and patience to be receptive, then perhaps we can attune ourselves just right and find the meaning we need.

By Hania Peper


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