Interview with Rey Chow, author of "Not Like a Native Speaker"

“My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different?”—Rey Chow

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerThe following is an interview with Rey Chow, author of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience:

Q: How does the issue of language or “languaging” provide new ways of thinking about the colonial and postcolonial experience?

Rey Chow: The issue of language is, of course, a longstanding one in colonial and postcolonial experience, and anyone working in the field of postcolonial studies of the past several hundred years needs to come to terms with it in one way of another. The confrontation between languages and cultures in the classic colonial situation, in which some languages and cultures are considered superior while others, typically the native ones, are deemed inferior, has created psychic, cross-cultural, institutional, and geopolitical effects that are still very much with us today. These effects inform not only worldwide communications in public settings but also some of our most intimate contacts on a daily basis (e.g. How to talk to friends or loved ones who have no awareness of such effects?) Paying attention to language—in the larger sense of cumulated habits, conventions, gestures, and tendencies that I designate by the term “languaging”—is thus a logical, perhaps indispensable, way of understanding the colonial and postcolonial experience. Indeed, as my subtitle indicates, to languaging itself is a form of postcolonial experience.

In French and Francophone postcolonial studies, extensive philosophical reflections on language as experience are quite common, but it is not the case in Anglophone postcolonial studies. One of the aims of this book is to address this disparity by highlighting questions of languaging in Anglophone postcolonial debates. In addition, the book introduces a third language and cultural area—Chinese, as used in Hong Kong under the fraught conditions of British colonialism and Chinese nationalism—whose contributions to postcolonial studies can be uniquely fascinating.

Q: You suggest that the colonized’s encounter with the colonizer’s language is usually depicted in negative terms. How does your book challenge this characterization?

RC: The negative terms I am referring to have to do with the predominant feeling of loss that pervades many postcolonial scholarly undertakings. This overpowering sense of loss is a logical outcome of what I call the confrontation between languages and cultures on unequal terms, which is registered by the colonized and their descendants as violation and injury, followed by profound melancholy. My book asks: can there be other ways of coming to terms with loss? Can loss be perceived, however painfully, as an alternative beginning to something different? Thus, in the various chapters, I read a number of authors—e.g. Chinua Achebe, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Derek Walcott, Leung Ping-kwan, Ma Kwok-ming, among many others—as striving for an alternative kind of response to loss as inscribed in various types of encounters with language, tradition, community, and creativity. It’s a collective undertaking, clearly unfinished, but I think it is important to engage with it because of its dissonance from the more pervasive trends of melancholic longing often found in postcolonial studies.

Q: Your book encompasses the colonial encounter in a variety of different places (Algeria, Hong Kong, etc.) how does language allow us to see the commonalities among these experiences?

RC: I guess I am struck less by the commonalities among these places than by their comparable, and comparably fraught, historical conditions vis-à-vis languaging. In the case of Algeria, I was moved by Jacques Derrida’s memoir of the childhood and adolescent years he spent in the French colony as a Maghrebian Jew, who nonetheless did not feel entirely at ease when he was consigned, as an outcome of ethnic discrimination, to the Jewish quarters. Derrida’s book on monolingualism is, I think, one of his best books. Pierre Bourdieu, for his part, did some magnificent sociological and photographic work on the merchants of Kabyle society (in Algeria). Bourdieu was interested in how these merchants, in order to survive under the capitalist conditions brought along by French colonialism, ingeniously adapted their traditional transactional methods: his famous work on habitus was in part traceable to this study of these merchants. Derrida and Bourdieu were not in dialogue with each other at all, but when juxtaposed, their accounts give us a kind of ethnographic insight into how Derrida’s own languaging practices, too, may be understood as a lifelong survival tactic that had evolved from his early experience with preemptive colonizing conditions. In the case of Hong Kong, my point is that Algeria can serve as a source of critical inspiration, not least because the confrontation there between colonizer and colonized is perennially complicated by the tensions among multiple native languages and cultures (Hebrew, Arabic, Berber). Hong Kong’s similarly complex historical situation, in which, the colonizing British presence aside, the native language (Chinese) is not one unified entity but comprises mutually uncomprehending spoken forms (Cantonese, Mandarin/Putonghua, Shanghainese, and so forth), has much to contribute to a globalized understanding of languaging as a postcolonial experience.

Q: How do you see Not Like a Native Speaker building upon your previous work, particularly The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism?

RC: Not Like a Native Speaker may be seen as a sequel to the earlier book. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism was an ambitious attempt to address the politics of ethnicity around the globe in our time—through modern and contemporary concepts of “the ethnic” as well as thematics such as stereotypes, imitation, abjection, and neoliberal feminist storytelling conventions. Although the politics of language is present in my readings, it is not the main focus. By contrast, in this new book, the politics of language is in the foreground. This is, however, not language in the more idealist or instrumental senses (as something constitutive of our soul, or as a mere tool), but rather language as an ongoing scenario of inequitable transactions and interactions. I introduce a fascinating group of characters, from Barack Obama, Frantz Fanon, Indian call center agents, a professor I had in graduate school, to my own mother, as bearers and performers of certain colonial and postcolonial scripts, so to speak. A major argument intended by this new book is that ethnicity is inextricably entangled with the politics of languaging. To pinpoint this entanglement, I use the phrase “skin tones,” which carries both visual and audial connotations.

Q: How did your own upbringing in Hong Kong shape your thinking about the book?

RC: The colonial education I received in Hong Kong gave me a heightened awareness of the subtle and not so subtle relations of power embedded in languaging. For those in a colony, learning the colonizer’s language is not simply a matter of learning a foreign language they are interested in. For the youngsters of my generation, learning English was not exactly a choice. English was a type of literacy one could not not have. What are the effects of acquiring such literacy, and how do those who learn English in this manner think, speak, read, and write? How do they live and function as “themselves”? These are some of the questions behind the writing of this book. There are also some personal stories—such as those of my secondary school days and of my mother’s work as a radio broadcaster—though I have included them strictly because they offer information that is not easily available but is quite pertinent to the book’s topic.

Q: How do you see your book as speaking to contemporary issues regarding globalization and global divisions of labor?

RC: If the global divisions of labor can be taken in a broad sense to include lingual and cultural labor, then much postcolonial experience is indeed about the uneven division of labor around the world in the past several hundred years, especially where some people’s languages have been imposed on others without the reverse also occurring. The legacy of this uneven division will be with us for a long time to come. In the meantime, as the People’s Republic of China is poised to become a superpower on all fronts, and as increasing numbers of people are learning Chinese (typically by acquiring Mandarin/Putonghua), how will the the global divisions of lingual and cultural labor shift, with what consequences for various populations touched by these shifting divisions? And, will the techniques of discernment, observation, analysis, description, and narration that traditionally come with strong language abilities become antiquated or altogether irrelevant with the ascendancy of machinic communications on our new media gadgets? These are among the questions raised by the book, which I hope will provoke other questions and perspectives, in what should become an unending series of discussions.

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