Somewhere in the in-between
At the age of twelve, Sadiqa de Meijer immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands and started living a life in two languages. “You shoot yourself and live,” the award-winning poet writes in Alfabet/Alphabet. “Is that what happens when you switch languages?” In this deeply resonating book of essays, de Meijer reflects on the ways language is linked to place and memory and how our early experiences with speech stick with us, wherever we may find ourselves later in life. She recounts how she first learned concepts like “tree” and “ground” as a young child. Years later, while learning English, she realized that even with seemingly simple and easy-to-gloss words, there is something missing in translation. Consider how “sky” doesn’t quite capture the feeling of “lucht.” The English word “isn’t vast and fresh, or as haunted by hurried clouds.” In fact, it conveys something altogether different: “Sky cannot fill your lungs or enter your bloodstream. Only lucht can do that.”
A feeling of disconnectedness — the sense that the equivalent word in one language cannot convey exactly the feeling of another — is a recurring theme. “People who speak a language they learned after early childhood live in chronic abstraction,” de Meijer says to a friend. After her grandmother died, she found herself unable to fully access her emotions when sharing the news with her English-speaking friends. But then she spoke about her loss with one who knew Dutch: “The pain was immediate and furious. A flood of tears, unstoppable. Early words, along primal neural pathways, imprinted when I still meant everything I said. I never had a grandma, but I had an oma.”
Like de Meijer’s, my first language is Dutch. Slowly, English has taken over as my language of first resort, the one I think and dream in. Some years ago, I read that it’s not unusual for bilinguals like me to feel like divided people, depending on what we’re speaking. And it’s not just an inward feeling. Once, after watching me interact with a restaurant server, my mother observed that I am different in English than I am in Dutch —“much more open and cheerful.”
What does it mean to exist across multiple languages? Are there parts of us that get stuck somewhere in the in‑between, unable to make the leap from tongue to tongue? Are we, in fact, somewhat split personalities, as my mother seemed to suggest?
De Meijer explores these and other complex questions. One’s first language, especially, can feel like a home, but it can also be used to exclude, however much affection the speaker has for it. When she was young, de Meijer often surprised people by her fluency in Dutch, which was “subject to interrogation or praise, neither of which were benign.” Years later, as an adult in Canada, she’s mindful of people’s reactions on the rare occasion when she introduces herself, simply, as Dutch:
I usually call myself mixed, or specify that I’m Dutch-Kenyan-Pakistani-Afghani. But when I meet a white Dutch person, I often say Dutch. The gesture always feels quietly precipitous — it is, of course, a litmus test of a person’s perspective; is their Nederland the vibrant cultural amalgam that is my birthplace, or do they cling to racist notions of who belongs? Not only will their answer settle that, it will determine what remains possible between us.
Alongside bigger questions of identity and belonging, de Meijer weaves little gems throughout Alfabet/Alphabet, including a four-page list of what English-speakers think Dutch sounds like: “Throaty, phlegmy, a little bit spitty.” “A friendlier German.” “Rolling water against rocks.” But the most intriguing offering is her version of the first chapter of Genesis, where she mixes English words with Dutch syntax:
8 And God named the firmament heaven. Then was it evening been, and it was morning been, the second day.
9 And God said: That the waters from under the heaven in a place assembled become, and that the dry seen become! And it was so.
10 And God named the dry earth, and the assembly of the waters named He seas; and God saw, that it good was.
The familiar but transformed verses illustrate the distance that exists between languages, the deeply revealing spaces that some can navigate and others can’t. Those who speak only English might see grammatical mistakes in this story of creation, but to someone who speaks both languages, the “mistakes” carry profound meaning.
Alfabet/Alphabet is a powerful meditation on how such meaning shapes us. Regardless of what we speak, there are untranslatable aspects in our lives, and in the lives of those we encounter. De Meijer encourages us to welcome that reality and to consider the untranslatable “sacred foundation of all relations, over which translation’s intermittent sparks may astonish us.”