2014 Contest: Nonfiction Runner-up MOTHER TONGUE by Chelsey Clammer
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago, and is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and The Water~Stone Review among many others. She is an award-winning essayist, and a freelance editor. Clammer is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. She is also the Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Her first collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Winter 2014. Her second collection of essays, BodyHome, is forthcoming from Hopewell Publishing in Spring 2015. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.
by Chelsey Clammer
Idiom: “Don’t eat your words.”
Condition: “I can taste my words.”
Diagnosis: Lexical Gustatory Synesthea.
Lexical slinks off the tongue, its sound a little bit creek-like, its letters slipping over the pebbles of taste buds, the liquidy linguistics that tinkle past lips.
Gustatory fills the mouth’s cavern, its weight weighing down the tongue, its full, cumbersome body heaved over lips with an ungainly gush.
Synesthea. It stutters. It lisps. Lips confused about formation, pronunciation tangled and twisted on a tongue that knows not how or when to let go.
The shape of these sounds are strung awkwardly together, one after another after another and another, creating a type of lingual topography—lexical gustatory synesthea—where the tongue attends to the crux of its cadences, taste buds puckering, the full menu of this phrase rolling within a mouth that wants to savor its meaning. Six courses of syllables served twice.
The salivary experience of lexical gustatory synesthea is an interesting sense to consider. Because consider this: having lexical gustatory synesthea means “clock” transmutes into licorice on the tongue. Yes, it’s true. Some people have a palate for vocabulary’s succulence. Some people taste words. As where “chair” tastes like chocolate. “Stop sign,” macaroons. “Sky scraper” has a zest of lime. How jealous are you?
Taste and touch and reading and hearing all bleed together on the tongue. Paths crossing. Convergence. The translation of words into taste.
We all did this as children, learned the tactility and taste of words as a way to understand them, remembering the flavor of phrases to somehow get to know them. But then we grew up. The conversation between word and taste silenced with age. The flavor of language now lost.
I’m sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table, gazing across the plateau of its weathered wood surface, staring at a certain server named Susan. She sits, looking up, wondering what she can do to please me next. Nothing. She knows this, stays still. My eyes eye the bits of her own plateau, though her weathered wood surface wears a white doily—the only outfit in her wardrobe. A uniform of sorts. White threads knitted together in a particular pattern placed on top of her, the doily lets the dark wood peek through its loopy weave. Susan and the doily have been sitting here since 1973. In the past four decades Susan’s purpose has stayed the same. Various dining table necessities sit on top of her—the expected accoutrements of salt and pepper shakers, as well as a wicker chicken circa 1970 containing small pink packets of sweetener. The have all been here since the table was first set forty years ago. Same with the woven napkin holder. The small opaque blue vase that contains a bouquet of fake Baby’s Breath. Hovering above Susan, the amalgamation of these items’ scents seep into my nose. The fragrance then cascades down the back door of my sinuses, leading to my tongue, which then interprets it as taste. The flavor of history. I reach out, spin Susan around with a soft force from my fingertips. I wonder about her lineage. I want to know what brought her here.
Katrina isn’t what she used to be. It used to be that Katrina was a frequently chosen name for children. At the beginning of 2005, she was the 246th most commonly used girl name on the baby name list. And then the summer came. And then a hurricane. And then 1800 deaths. And now Katrina is no longer wanted. She’s despised, feared. Or more accurately, loathed. Katrina. And how her name is a keepsake no one wants to carry. A stressor triggering traumatic memories that residents who not only remained, but survived, no longer want to recognize as a part of their pasts. The water receded as X’s started to arrive on every front door. The headcount of those who stayed behind, stayed inside, the ones who did die, are now just part of a number spray painted on the soggy outside walls of these ruined homes. Five. And nine over there. Here’s one.
Katrina is their trauma.
Her usage declines. Recedes.
2006: 379th on the baby name list
2010: 865th on the baby name list.
2011: She no longer exists in the top 1000 of the baby name list. The desire for her has regressed. She hasn’t been this low since 1961.
No one wants Katrina.
The power of what a name can do.
Our server’s full name is Lazy Susan, which does not fit her as she is always busy. The trait of always working. Even at a stand-still, the Lazy Susan doesn’t neglect her duties of swiveling around to help serve those accoutrements. She creates convenience, performs her job quite well. Always has.
Give Susan a little spin, and she soon presents the blue and white bowl containing sugar, sugar that surprisingly still tastes similar to what sugar should taste like, even though it has congealed into a mountain range of saccharine over the past few decades. The contents of the blue and white bowl forgotten, but the Lazy Susan still holds her.
She made space for us, gave the basic flavors of condiment staples room to squat. Right on top of her. And the ways in which Lazy Susan revolves was revolutionary. A re-invention of tradition. Instant popularity. She was born from innovation. Lazy Susan will be remembered for centuries, though not her history. Her heritage, her origins, even the year of her birth are all forgotten. Historians long ago surrendered to the futile investigation of the origins of her name—yes, why Susan? Even the Smithsonian is answerless. Research never succeeded to weave together the fraying threads of her lineage.
The headline reads: “Dictionary Makers Kill the Cassette Player to Make Room for the Mankini”
Words eventually evaporate.
There was quite a brabble last night over at the growlery. Some script kiddie was discussing the threequel of her science fiction series about glocalization with a friend who at one point challenged her use of a cassette player in the opening scene. The author argued it was important in regards to the millennium bug theme.
- The Oxford English Dictionarydeclared those words no longer needed to be heard. That to define them was now unnecessary. We grow away from words. The generations of people who used them will one day die off. Vocabulary vanishes.
Eurocommunism lost to noob.
Halier lost to nurdle.
Video jockey lost to jeggings.
The irrelevance of a phrase. Once unwanted, prose departs.
But who decides when language dies?
Throws like a girl. Cries like a bitch. Nervous as a whore in church. Drier than a nun’s nasty. Bitch-slapped. Momma’s boy. Bookslut. Chick flick. Chick lit. Debbie Downer. Tittybong. That was a bitch. Son of a bitch. Sweats like a blind dyke in a fish market. Bimbo. Fag Hag. Pussy. Pussy-whipped. Mother fucker. Fucking cunt. Prima donna. Cold as a witch’s tit. Whines like a little bitch.
I’m five years old. I’m still trying to figure out the concept of correct pronunciation.
Mom, I want ice cweam.
Look mom! There’s a wainbow!
Enter: speech therapist. My mother wants my mouth to act normal, wants my tongue to be able to handle the alphabet, lips moving like lips are supposed to move for each letter, each word. I won’t remember the speech lessons, but I will remember the feel of the misplaced W in my mouth, the way it weighs down my tongue, the cushiony taste to it. Cheesecake. W is richer, a more full-mouth sense than the stark R. Rice cake.
The tongue tastes. The tongue speaks, forming words that started out as a silent idea. Lips lining the mouth are good for keeping food in. Lips lining the mouth are also good for guiding each word out (of the way). And then there’s the teeth. Teeth controlling the latitude of language, conducting air as it flows from esophagus to mouth. And then out. The bite at the end of a sentence. And the tongue follows, strikes the teeth, lashes, clashes with it to complete a sound that holds meaning. And then that one final push to bring the word out, to transform air into sound, to vocalize what’s inside so I can connect with you, out here. Converse. The air that attends to us both.
And yet. At times, words protest the mouth. Stuck in that space between brain and air. A holding cell. Lodged. A type of______. Um, a type of______. Hmm, a type of______. Well shit. A type of______. Damn. What’s the word I’m looking for? It’s on the tip of my tongue.
In regards to the Lazy Susan’s history there are a few knowns. 1313. Author Wang Zhen pioneered a moveable table whose surface consisted of 1000 organized Chinese characters. The table spun and moved, relieving the typesetter of the constant, monotonous movements of re-positioning his body to be able to reach each one of the 1000 characters.
600 years go by.
- Wu Lien-Teh believed communal Chinese meals were a hotbed of disease. Enter: “hygienic dining tray” with its swiveling capabilities and serving spoons and separate chopsticks. He traveled all over China to see if anyone had already invented a rotating tray. He found nothing that resembled his idea.
35 years go by.
- Johnny Kan opens a Cantonese-style restaurant in San Francisco. He has two Chinese-American buddies who help him out, one of which is George Hall. George starts tinkering around with wood and ball bearings until one day his tinkering stops. He has completed his invention. The revolving table was born (again?) and would become a pivotal facet of Johnny’s new banquet room. The Lazy Susan (re: how “Susan”? re: why “Susan”? Certainly she wasn’t Chinese) would become a household name, would transform the once-cramped and dingy Chinese tables into refined and spacious eating arrangements.
And then a few years go by.
- The Lazy Susan becomes a standard fare, as common as Fiestaware.
Fifty-four years go by.
- I return to my grandmother’s house during my winter vacation, and I spot the Lazy Susan still on her dinner table. I become curious out of boredom. Susan, where did you come from?
I do some cursory research. Wikipedia doesn’t know. Ask.com doesn’t have an answer. Google is clueless. Again, even the Smithsonian surrendered, said they had no way of discerning the why and the how of her name.
No one for sure knows Susan’s history. Something is lost.
As where her heritage is apparently not important enough to remember. The Lazy Susan is proof that history can be deleted, forgotten. Can disappear. A lineage silenced. No one seems to care. No one finds the history, the meaning of her name necessary to know.
Let’s say the doctor was right. Let’s say my mother’s assumptions were right. Let’s say the Old Wives’ Tale is real.
If they had all been correct, if my strong heartbeat and high placement in the womb did indeed indicate I was a boy, then I would have been beat up each day of my childhood, if not my entire life.
Thank god I was born penisless, because if I hadn’t my name would be Cosmo.
Cosmo Clammer. Destined to be taunted. Doomed to be despised. No one would have cared my name meant order, meant harmony, meant beauty. No, the ugly, clunky sound of Cosmo Clammer uncontrollably cartwheels out of your mouth like vomit. And an inevitable insult would surely have been hurled after it. Every time.
Let’s look at statistics.
Statistically speaking, Cosmo is not a well-received name in any era, any decade.
57,870 out of 88,799 on the list of preferred names for baby boys.
That’s 500 lexicon points automatically deducted for even considering the name Cosmo.
About lexicon points.
My friend and I track our lexical scores.
It works like this:
- Come up with a new word that is as witty as it is perfect for the situation of which it describes
- Recognize the inventive linguistics and scream “lexicon point!”
“Hippies living in Texas? Those dreadnecks!”
“That dyke’s dating a dude now? What a hasbian!”
“Did you see her girlfriend? They look like twins! Such dopplebangers!”
“Dang. All that fucking last night made me sore. I have a total bangover!”
From these provided examples, I see that
- a) it’s completely obvious my friend and I are queer
- b) 3 out of our favorite top 4 lexicon points are in reference to something sex-related
- c) lexicon pointmight be the wrong phrase for this section
- d) perhaps sexicon pointsis what we live for
“Good god that woman knows what she’s doing. She’s a fucking cunt connoisseur!”
New words ripple from our tongues, followed by that feeling of power, of claiming, of making, of changing our engagement with language. Wrapping new words around each other, cinching our identities, putting them in sync with one another. It’s more than a relationship with words. It’s love. A lovership with language.
But not all language is loved. Declaring progress is a questionable practice. We’ve gone from fob to immigrant. Changed secretary to administrative assistant. Being retarded is now having a cognitive difficulty. Crazy is just a mental illness. But some socially constructed conceptions resist reformation. Some words, some phrases just won’t go away, no matter how much they are hated by how many. Because we wish they could go away, but they’re so soaked in our history, in our mouths that we unthinkingly say them. Racist phrases we rely on. My best friend gets annoyed with me because I nigger-lipped the cigarette we were sharing. My sister laughs at how I nigger-rigged my car’s engine with a sock. My mom thinks my aunt is an Indian giver. My grandmother asks me if I’m out of my cotton-pickin’ mind.
Also, the full-bodied taste of full-body hatred that resonates in her mouth with an intense rich flavor of restriction.
Yes, a woman’s mouth must cease movement to obtain the unattainable standards of female flesh.
If not eating, then what?
Swish then spit.
If her mouth is not empty, then it should be full of him. So says misogyny. It’s the way it’s always been and the way it will always be. She is here to please.
According to sexism, according to misogyny, a woman’s mouth has two positions: the money shot O, or lips closed. Either way, a woman chokes on silence. Swallow that. An old-school sexist standard of purpose, of beauty is still taught to young girls today.
It’s elementary, really.
Let’s calculate the age of this type of oppression.
The answer is easy.
The oppression of 0’s. As in, her clothes. The body she’s supposed to have, the body that a sexist society says he owns. Her mouth will never learn the pleasure of eating. No need to know, really. Her throat is meant to be closed. Less is more. He approves of her open O.
The Black-eyed Susan.
Oh Susan, what’d you do? If you stopped being so lazy he wouldn’t punch you.
Grandma sits across the kitchen table from me and speaks of her husband as if he is alive.
“Well,” my grandmother says as she spins her Lazy Susan around with the soft force of her knobby fingers, “your granddad says you can only be happy if you love your family.”
Granddad died three years ago.
Her verb is misused.
Because her language keeps granddad alive, revitalizing his memory to ward him away from historylessness.
We can’t ignore the lexicon we loath, would love for the OED to declare dead.
We fight to forget, try to set forth on setting right the reverberations of the lexically oppressive.
We try to fix it.
Here, this might help:
1956: Bette is transcribing her boss’s letter on a typewriter. She accidently hits G instead of H, and when she goes to erase it, the ink smears. This looks unprofessional. So she gets a tidbit of paint from the cabinet, tinkers around with its color to match the hue of her stationary, and, well look at that, a fixed mistake.
The idea catches on. Everyone wants this miracle masking mixture, as they call it. So in her home Bette starts making batches of her “Mistake-Out.”
23 years go by.
1979: Bette sells her business to the Gillette Corporation for $47.5 million. With royalties.
1 year goes by.
1980: Bette dies.
So sad. But she will go down in history as the inventor of White-Out, as the woman who, essentially, helped to fix history’s mishaps.
Though White-Out doesn’t really change history, but covers it up so we can hide the oversights and re-do it all correctly. Close enough. What other choice do we have?
Because while we may be tempted to at times re-write the past, to give stories to the historyless, the blanks are still there, those historical mistakes are not going anywhere. Yes, the roots of a language that can harm so many may try to be forgotten, but nothing can be deleted. Just covered.
Palimpsests and carbon copies, however, can be beautiful things. Records of what we have made, making traces of things in the making. Confirmations of yes, this happened. Documenting that this, this right now, is happening. How lovely to know there are testaments to the fact that we exist. As I wrote those sentences, though, I used the delete key quite a bit. Finding the right word, replacing “verifications” with “confirmations,” “proofs” with “records,” and switching “witnessing” to “documenting.” But you wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t written that last sentence.
Computers, while revolutionary, are deceiving. We can’t Ctrl+a, delete history. We can’t select all of the misogyny and racism that we wish didn’t exist and do away with it. Altering the long and strong history of oppressive social constructions isn’t that easy. No matter that we try to battle, try to eradicate what’s wrong. The historical acts that created these struggles are still there, will always be there, lurking beneath the layer of new language that tries to get us to forget. Because history is etched into our appearance.
Wiping out oppression will never be an option as the history of hierarchies will never be forgotten. We can’t dismiss the connotations of our skin, the burden our bodies bear.
We can’t make a hurricane not happen. We can’t un-sexism society.
But we can point out the ways in which mistakes have been sloppily whited out. As in, the refugees had a place to go. (But they lost their hope in the Superdome.) As in, females can be ministers now. (But misogyny is still preached.) As in, we have a black president so racism no longer exists. Wrong. The history of oppression will never leave our collective memories. And yet we can still attempt to right the wrongs, to try to shift language, to eradicate the future need for White Out.
Here, let me un-mistake that delusion for you.
Point: we can’t recreate history, but we can honor the historyless. We can point out what’s been missing to bring it back into focus. To revitalize it. We wait for the paint to dry, the pain to heal, and we have hope that this time we’ll get it right.
Susan B. Anthony: Leader. Reformer. Inciter.
Susan Faludi: Humanist. Journalist. Courageous.
Susan Sontag: Icon. Activist. Inquisitor.
All of these Susans changed history.
None of these Susans were lazy.
I have a dream that at some point certain phrases will become unwanted. Unused. Archaic.
A form-fitting white ribbed tank top worn by men.
The company calls it an A-Tank.
Sometimes, I slip.
I can’t quite quit nomenclature.
Well slap my ass and call me Susan.
 paltry noisy quarrel
 place in which to growl
 a person who uses existing scripts or codes to hack into computers, lacking the expertise to write their own
 the third film, book, event, etc. in a series; a second sequel
 the practice of conducting business according to both local and global considerations
 a machine for playing back or recording audio cassette
 an inability in older computing software to deal correctly with dates of 1 January 2000 or later