Tag Archives: words

The Venus Flytrap: A Women’s Language

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The philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote extensively about the need for a embodied, feminine authorship, penned in one essay: “I said, ‘write French’. One writes in. Penetration. Door. Knock before entering. Strictly forbidden.”

To write in: in secret, in solitude, in defiance, in allegiance, in spite of. This can happen in any language.

In China’s Jiangyong County, for an uncertain number of centuries, existed a dialect called Nüshu. It was created for, and used exclusively by, women when they were not otherwise permitted literacy.

Nüshu created the custom of “third day missives”, which would arrive in a woman’s marital home on the third day following her wedding. These were booklets of joyful blessings and sad songs, sent to her from her mother and her closest female friends. In literature I have read about this literature, the words “sworn sisters” come up repeatedly, at the centre of the nexus of intimacy.

Among all partings I think of this – a queer woman writing to her lover or desired one, separated from her by marriage. Her secrets travelling to another village, almost safely. Her lover or her desired one receiving these cries of the heart, etched in ink. The lines of the Nüshu script are so delicate, leaflike as compared to standard hanzi logograms, that they were known as “mosquito writing”. I want to imagine those lines being saved, but I also want to think that every woman in her new household would have known how to read too. Would they have kept her secret, or turned against her?

Nüshu was also often written on handheld fans, objects held close – folded or open.

Unlike the Japanese Hiragana or Korean hangul scripts, which were primarily used by women before being absorbed into general use, authentic Nüshu died with its last proficient speaker in 2004. Only scholars know it now, and perhaps deciphering rather than communicating is their primary mode. Because it was written down in personal documents, it could not possibly have been secret, as many claim. So its use was either accepted, or tolerated as a form of lesser communication.

I looked at lines of characters: the same word in different Chinese scripts. There is said to be a link between Nüshu and the most ancient of them all: the writing carved on bones and tortoise shells that would crack upon heating, and be used in divination. How many times did the words for “rain” or “king” appear on those shells and bones? And the ones for “love” or “child”? In the 19th century, these fragments were ground up in traditional medicine, their secrets swallowed.

The lettering for “woman” in the ancient oracle script is serpentine, an almond shape cut through by a flowing incurvation. I meditate in other languages about the scripted, the secret, the silent, the said.

This is how we know that Nüshu was an embodied language: it could be spoken, and sung. The written documents that remain are only vestiges of a certain world. Words build worlds; this language too sustained one. And like those swallowed divinations, I know there are some who carry its spirit, scriptless and soundless, into many vastly different ones.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 23rd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Koi No Yokan And Kintsugi

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What marvels do the languages we’ll never know contain, what things would they tell us about ourselves if only we knew how to decipher them? Sometimes there are feelings I have that calcify inside me until, years later, a comet of words will set them free like a kiss in a fairytale. What if the words that will give me back to myself are ones I will not even understand?

Those lists of beautiful and supposedly untranslatable words are like too many macaroons at once. I’m not sure such delicate turns of phrase are meant to be gorged that way, instead of being savoured. I encountered one of them, unaccompanied, the other day – and perhaps because it was alone, among lines and not in lists, it arrested me. I mused over it slowly. This was the phrase, from the Japanese language: koi no yokan. The presentiment upon meeting someone that, eventually, you will fall in love with them. But not yet.

The last time I had that sense, I had held on to the possibility like the fact of the moon: full in rarer moments, obscured in most. Sometimes the probability of love took me far, literally. Sometimes I forgot about it. Once or twice, it ambushed me, and I would find myself bawling, as though a claypot I didn’t know was in my hands was suddenly in shards on the floor. All in all, let me say this: what was never promised but expected to be eventual was more inspiring than disappointing. Perhaps some glimpses of love yet to come, intuitions that hold true for only as long as morning dew on a leaf, are meant only to do that much.

The last time I really loved someone, I didn’t have a clue that it would come to pass for the year and a half in which I had known him peripherally, before he suddenly came into view like an aperture of sight or imagination had been adjusted. I never saw it coming, and sifting through memory later, I was humbled by the intricacy of life’s convolutions, how something only a short distance away had never shimmered at me with sweet allusion, or cast its spectral foreshadow.

Although here’s what I suspect and may never be told the truth about: he knew before I did. He’d had that presentiment, and if he had known the Japanese words, he may have known what to call it.

There are other words now to fill the gap that cannot be bridged. I know some of them. Others hover outside my comprehension.

Mulling over koi no yokan, I remembered that where that early recognition had caused me pain had actually always been only in platonic friendships. Their loss scars me far deeper than amorous disillusionment. I’ve matured into a tendency to see romance as transient in ways that I refuse to presume, even now, of friendship. I spent all of this year recovering from two friendships that failed my faith in them.

Again, and always, another Japanese word: kintsugi. The art of fixing what’s broken with gold, which hides neither its beauty nor the reason for its need.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 22nd 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Poem: Mamihlapinatapai

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Mamihlapinatapai

Yahgun (Tierra del Fuego): a look shared by two people, each of whom wish the other would initiate that which they both desire, but which neither one wants to concede.

The saddest word in the world
has a piñata nestled
within it. You will never
know the richness of
your own heart until
you have held it high
above the totem
of your body and
blessed its
rupture.