SOME|WHERE | Ramna Safeer

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I think of my name as if it were one of my mother's dupattas. In my diasporic story, with my childhood spent mispronouncing my name to accommodate a home I felt lost in, I imagine the fabric of this dupatta being torn cleanly down the middle. One half is bent and balled, with many un-ironable creases, to fit into the English language. The other half, in Urdu, is clean and crisply pronounced, sitting neatly on my shoulder. Ramna. No wrinkles. No hiccups.

Language does not make it easy to articulate the perpetual doubleness that diaspora makes of me. In fact, language itself seems to be at the center of my diasporic experience. How can you understand every crook and corner of a language and yet stumble to speak it? How can one language feel unfamiliar and yet so much like home, and the other so familiar and yet alien?

Growing up, my mom and dad played old Urdu ghazals, lyrical poems set to classical music, aloud in our Scarborough apartment. I think something about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice made our place, with its shattered kitchen linoleum and flickering laundry room lights, feel softer. My mom used to tell me that my name, Ramna, came from one of her favourite Urdu ghazals she listened to as a teenager. To me, they all sounded like lazy lullabies, heavy and haunting, but I ached to feel them. I felt like I had been named in honour of centuries of classical poetry and I wanted to do these pieces justice. I wanted to sway alongside my mom at the stove, but the words in these Urdu poems seemed distant to me, like I was listening through a faint buzz. I did not want to feel undeserving of my own name.

But not long after, when I started writing poetry myself, English seemed ill-equipped to unwrap the very things I was struggling to articulate: the dark hair on my arms, the Bollywood music that accompanied my trips to school in the morning, my closet divided into shalwar khameez on one side and jeans on the other. In my teenage poems about love and girlhood, it was not brown girls I pictured as I scribbled in my journals. It was white girls, with pale arms and pink undertones. Girls with a single language, a single home, and an uncomplicated identity.







How can you understand every crook and corner of a language and yet stumble to speak it?


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There is no manual for my immigrant parents on how to navigate Western-dominated conversations. No one taught my parents how to engage in discussions about mental illness, sex education or social justice — the dialogue we often take for granted, with the language we assume is universal, is not accessible to my parents. For instance, mental health awareness campaigns often assume their advocacy will cater to immigrant and racialized communities in the same way that they cater to others. Except, more often than not, their language fails to account for the differences in background at the outset. My parents are both trilingual and still, their inability to engage with these conversations that are not generated with them in mind is mistaken for illiteracy, inadequacy or laziness.

On the other hand, young diasporic people need their parents to understand. For us, Western-centric discussions about mental illness fail to recognize the additional barriers to support raised by our complex identities. Yet again, neither our mother tongues nor English are able to say what we need them to. Yet again, we remain within a liminal space.

As a child, I cowered when my mom handed me the phone and asked me to wish my grandparents a happy Eid. I had a fiercely one-way relationship with Urdu. I understood her perfectly, down to the last turn of phrase, but my throat tightened at the thought of piecing her together myself. My tongue felt like a sieve the liquid of Urdu had no patience for. But, then, I felt a pang of jealousy when I heard brown women on the street exchanging Urdu words in a sea of coarse English, like they were sharing a delicate secret.

I have exchanged too many broken, half-way words with my family since I came to Canada over a dozen years ago. These tattered conversations have made language the place at which I really feel my diasporic identity. I have not been back to Pakistan since I came here and, sometimes, when I long for that home, I wonder about my own inevitable silence. I wonder about traveling through the country, surviving through my family's translations and my own minimal phrases, otherwise left to watch and listen and touch.




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For years, I introduced myself with a mispronounced name. I would thin out the first 'a' of my name so it sounded simpler for English mouths. It is not a substantial difference, not nearly as bad as many of my diasporic friends, whose names are consistently prodded and butchered. Still, I felt myself bending to English’s coercion, folding the song of my name into something flat, no longer what it was intended to be.

In some ways, I am finding my language. It exists less in the words I use and more in how I use them, and what I say. It is not half Urdu and half English. My diasporic language exists in the way I write poems about brownness, where the language in which it is written seems secondary to what it is written about. It exists in the way I now introduce myself, the way my mother would. Ramna. No wrinkles. No hiccups.
I think of my name as if it were one of my mother's dupattas. In my diasporic story, with my childhood spent mispronouncing my name to accommodate a home I felt lost in, I imagine the fabric of this dupatta being torn cleanly down the middle. One half is bent and balled, with many un-ironable creases, to fit into the English language. The other half, in Urdu, is clean and crisply pronounced, sitting neatly on my shoulder. Ramna. No wrinkles. No hiccups.

Language does not make it easy to articulate the perpetual doubleness that diaspora makes of me. In fact, language itself seems to be at the center of my diasporic experience. How can you understand every crook and corner of a language and yet stumble to speak it? How can one language feel unfamiliar and yet so much like home, and the other so familiar and yet alien?

Growing up, my mom and dad played old Urdu ghazals, lyrical poems set to classical music, aloud in our Scarborough apartment. I think something about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice made our place, with its shattered kitchen linoleum and flickering laundry room lights, feel softer. My mom used to tell me that my name, Ramna, came from one of her favourite Urdu ghazals she listened to as a teenager. To me, they all sounded like lazy lullabies, heavy and haunting, but I ached to feel them. I felt like I had been named in honour of centuries of classical poetry and I wanted to do these pieces justice. I wanted to sway alongside my mom at the stove, but the words in these Urdu poems seemed distant to me, like I was listening through a faint buzz. I did not want to feel undeserving of my own name.

But not long after, when I started writing poetry myself, English seemed ill-equipped to unwrap the very things I was struggling to articulate: the dark hair on my arms, the Bollywood music that accompanied my trips to school in the morning, my closet divided into shalwar khameez on one side and jeans on the other. In my teenage poems about love and girlhood, it was not brown girls I pictured as I scribbled in my journals. It was white girls, with pale arms and pink undertones. Girls with a single language, a single home, and an uncomplicated identity.





How can you understand every crook and corner of a language and yet stumble to speak it?


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There is no manual for my immigrant parents on how to navigate Western-dominated conversations. No one taught my parents how to engage in discussions about mental illness, sex education or social justice — the dialogue we often take for granted, with the language we assume is universal, is not accessible to my parents. For instance, mental health awareness campaigns often assume their advocacy will cater to immigrant and racialized communities in the same way that they cater to others. Except, more often than not, their language fails to account for the differences in background at the outset. My parents are both trilingual and still, their inability to engage with these conversations that are not generated with them in mind is mistaken for illiteracy, inadequacy or laziness.

On the other hand, young diasporic people need their parents to understand. For us, Western-centric discussions about mental illness fail to recognize the additional barriers to support raised by our complex identities. Yet again, neither our mother tongues nor English are able to say what we need them to. Yet again, we remain within a liminal space.

As a child, I cowered when my mom handed me the phone and asked me to wish my grandparents a happy Eid. I had a fiercely one-way relationship with Urdu. I understood her perfectly, down to the last turn of phrase, but my throat tightened at the thought of piecing her together myself. My tongue felt like a sieve the liquid of Urdu had no patience for. But, then, I felt a pang of jealousy when I heard brown women on the street exchanging Urdu words in a sea of coarse English, like they were sharing a delicate secret.

I have exchanged too many broken, half-way words with my family since I came to Canada over a dozen years ago. These tattered conversations have made language the place at which I really feel my diasporic identity. I have not been back to Pakistan since I came here and, sometimes, when I long for that home, I wonder about my own inevitable silence. I wonder about traveling through the country, surviving through my family's translations and my own minimal phrases, otherwise left to watch and listen and touch.


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For years, I introduced myself with a mispronounced name. I would thin out the first 'a' of my name so it sounded simpler for English mouths. It is not a substantial difference, not nearly as bad as many of my diasporic friends, whose names are consistently prodded and butchered. Still, I felt myself bending to English’s coercion, folding the song of my name into something flat, no longer what it was intended to be.

In some ways, I am finding my language. It exists less in the words I use and more in how I use them, and what I say. It is not half Urdu and half English. My diasporic language exists in the way I write poems about brownness, where the language in which it is written seems secondary to what it is written about. It exists in the way I now introduce myself, the way my mother would. Ramna. No wrinkles. No hiccups.
RAMNA SAFEER | Ramna is a pre-law English student at Queen's University. Her poetry has been published in Atwood Mag, Rising Pheonix Review, Big Lucks & Room Magazine. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Gal-Dem Magazine & Burnt Roti Magazine. If you're trying to find her, look for perpetual coffee-spilling & an unapologetic brownness.
RAMNA SAFEER | Ramna is a pre-law English student at Queen's University. Her poetry has been published in Atwood Mag, Rising Pheonix Review, Big Lucks & Room Magazine. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Gal-Dem Magazine & Burnt Roti Magazine. If you're trying to find her, look for perpetual coffee-spilling & an unapologetic brownness.

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