Ankhi Mukherjee, ‘I said Oscar Wilde’s Name in Dominican and It Came Out “Oscar Wao”’: Faking it, Making it

On the knife edge of the undergraduate lecture theatre, with its bad acoustics and forensic lighting (which makes the friendliest faces look implacable), it often comes down to a choice between keeping the (Indian) accent and pronouncing the (English) word correctly. This is harder than it sounds if your educational trajectory has moved, like a parody of violent aspiration, from small-town India to the East Coast of the US to the University of Oxford (via London). The archive of my lecture notes will testify to this considerable, if also pitiable, anxiety. Take the paper copy of ‘Sigmund Freud: The Uncanny’, the inaugural lecture of my popular ‘Big Ideas: Introduction to Critical Theory’ series. Words are underlined for emphasis, vowel prolongations and syllable stresses marked out by a system so eccentric it would be unrepeatable even by its author. Take ‘objective correlative’, for instance, a favourite phrase which I tend to fluff in action. Not confident the phonetic /kəˈrɛlətɪv/ will make sense in the heat of the moment, I have written out cor|relative. In a paroxysm of nervousness around ‘objective’, I have even transcribed the ‘ob’ in Bengali, so that it unfailingly comes out as ‘ə’, not the ‘ͻ:’ that the Bengali mother tongue makes the ‘ob’s in my ‘objectives’ particularly vulnerable to. Bengali transcription, interestingly, is deemed failsafe by my subconscious self even though I haven’t used the language in formal education since I was sixteen. ‘Automaton’ is another one: if I can trust myself to have safely overcome pronouncing the word as auto-may-ton, as I happily did in Kolkata, the American influence may suddenly surface to drag it down by its tail: /ɔːˈtɒmət(ə)n/ could easily other itself in /ɔːˈtɒmətän/. Again, Bengali phonetic transcription and graphic arcana have come to the rescue, as they have for optician, detour, and uterine.

If language is to be power is it imperative to enunciate ‘correctly’? I wouldn’t be caught dead putting on a British or American accent, but seem to want to show impressionable populations that I speak with an Indian intonation despite knowing the correct pronunciation of words. I believe that while we have, in 2015, come round to accepting that English accents are cute, testimony to the uncanny lability of an Empire-forging language that is now slumming it as so many global vernaculars, deviation from standard pronunciation is still subliminally received as a civilizational lag that marks the migrant’s belated stake on metropolitan cultural goods. Jean Rhys, whose arrival as white West Indian to the English class system in 1907 was greeted instantly, and unambiguously, with prejudice and rejection, has Hester in Voyage in the Dark (1934) chastise the Creole Anna for her ‘awful sing-song voice […] Exactly like a nigger you talked – and still do’.1 ‘Speak up and I will place you at once’, Anna imagines her stepmother saying to her.2 Rhys, born white and upper class in Dominica, was effectively black and working class in London. Forced to give up her dream of acting because of her unshakable West Indian accent – she was, according to her biographer Caroline Angier, rejected by Tree’s School (which would later become the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) – Rhys is said to have spoken in a whisper for years afterward.

On the other hand, the hyperbolism of out-Englishing the English haunts colonial mimicry. Perhaps T. S. Eliot had this in mind when he said of Henry James, but with not just a tinge of self-loathing, that ‘It is the final perfection, the consummation of the American to become, not an Englishman, but a European – something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become’.3 Could we read Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as if Prufrock were an expat American, successor to James’s Lambert Strether, his self-doubt and dwindling self-esteem (even the mermaids conjured up by his imagination snub him) connected to the indignities of becoming European? This would explain why his (acquired) British self-deprecation feels like a nervous condition: ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean! / But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a / screen’.4 If we were indeed to read ‘Prufrock’ as a dialogue between the self and its interloping public persona, momentarily examined as ‘a patient etherised on a table’ the prioritising of the aural and auditory in the poem would take on added significance. Critics have found the poem a veritable echo chamber: ‘muttering retreats’; ‘Streets that follow like a tedious argument’; women who come and go ‘Talking of Michelangelo’; ‘voices dying with a dying fall’; ‘I have seen the Eternal footman […] snicker’; the mermaids who are an auditory as well as a visual illusion, ‘Combing the white hair of the waves blown back’ (my italics); its accidental hero ‘Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse’. And, in the final stanza of the poem:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Speech communities, instead of saving us from our solipsism, prove to be our unmaking. The insistence of human voices, not the otherwordly lingering in sea chambers, makes us drown.

In a 1951 article, Stephen Stepanchev suggests that the name of J. Alfred Prufrock probably came from the Prufrock-Littau Company, furniture dealers located at Fourth and St. Charles Streets in St Louis, Eliot’s birthplace. Eliot may have seen the store advertisement, which was printed in the 19 December 1912 issue of Reedy’s Mirror, a prominent literary weekly in the first two decades of the twentieth-century. ‘The name Prufrock is so rare’, Stepanchev observes, ‘that a thorough search of the telephone directories of fifteen other large American cities failed to discover a single representative of the family’.5 In St Louis, however, there were three Prufrocks in the 1950 directory. Eliot addresses this pesky coincidence in an unpublished letter of 13 March 1915:

I did not have, at the time of writing the poem, and have not yet recovered, any recollection of having acquired the name in this way, but I think that it must be assumed that I did, and that the memory has been obliterated.6

The obliterated Missouri past, its Southern accents overlaid with the cadences of Boston drawing rooms and those of metropolitan Europe, returns and is psychosomatically endured in Prufrock, albeit in the negative mode of forgetting. Idiomatic difference, I am claiming, is the key to Prufrock’s mystery.

Edward Kamau Brathwaite brings up Missouri in his warm acknowledgement of T. S. Eliot’s influence on the mainstream Caribbean poets who moved from standard English to ‘nation language’. The poet-critic Brathwaite’s History of the Voice (1984), originally delivered as a lecture to students at Harvard University in 1979, is a potted history of the ‘underground language’ that developed in the contact zone of the Caribbean islands between West African languages and colonial English, French, Dutch, and Spanish. Brathwaite calls it ‘nation language’, a poetry culture that is based on noise, sound, and song: ‘not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word’.7 This is not poetry in the mode of the ‘Egotistical sublime’, or, its opposite, the annihilated voice of the isolated poet savant, but an expressivity that arises from a milieu, a cultural continuum where ‘the noise and sounds the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him’.8 Nation language, Brathwaite insists, is not dialect, a perversion of English. It is English, African, and Caribbean at the same time, comparable in its vitality to ‘a howl, or a shout or a machine-gun or the wind or a wave’.9

According to Brathwaite, T. S. Eliot introduced Caribbean poets to the use of the speaking voice, the ‘conversational tone’.10 It was Eliot’s recorded voice, property of the British Council, reading ‘Preludes’, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The Waste Land’ and the ‘Four Quartets’, which, Brathwaite states, ‘turned us on’:

In that dry deadpan delivery, the riddims of St Louis (though we didn’t know the source then) were stark and clear for those of us who at the same time were listening to the dislocations of Bird, Dizzy and Klook. And it is interesting that on the whole, the Establishment couldn’t stand Eliot’s voice […].11

At a time when BBC meant ‘Empire and Loyal Models and Our Masters Voice’, Eliot unwittingly emancipated it for his Caribbean listeners simply by the way he spoke. Juan Suárez has compared the Eliot of ‘The Waste Land’ to a sound recorder, zapping through an extant literary archive kept on the air at different frequencies.12 Brathwaite’s reading switches this idea of Eliot as a writing technology with that of a desiring-machine, the machine’s flows and breakages connected to a social body or social bodies.

The disjunction between Eliot’s American speech rhythms and regular English speech is crucial to understanding his versification. ‘Even in his latest recordings, made when he had long been resident in England, the weights and lengths of his vowels and the rhythm of his speech are not in the English measure’, observes A. David Moody.13 The versification, which seemed to simply follow Eliot’s speech rhythms, transformed the iambic pentameter, ‘stretching and contracting the conventional line into another measure altogether, called vers libre for want of a better name’.14 While Brathwaite does not overtly draw the connection between the Caribbean poets’ and Eliot’s manipulation of classic form, it is interesting to note how ‘nation language’ too sets itself up, in Brathwaite’s recounting, against the iambic pentameter. It employs dactyls, for instance, to use the body a different way, and to direct voice from its end-oriented trajectory in the iambic pentameter to dips, digressions, and through what Brathwaite calls ‘an intervallic pattern’.15

The importance of hearing (and being heard) in Caribbean literature was reinforced by the BBC Caribbean Voices programme (1943-58), originally formulated by Una Marson, a Jamaican freelance scriptwriter, as ‘Calling the West Indies’. Featuring creative writing as well as critical commentary on Caribbean literature, its aim was to connect Caribbean writers from the different islands and England. Writing produced in the Caribbean was sent to the metropolitan centre, where, glossed and consecrated by the comprador intelligentsia, it would be beamed back, via radio broadcast, to the vast and geopolitically diverse Caribbean audience. Lamming witheringly compared it to the sugar trade: ‘Cut, sent abroad to be refined, and gets back in the finished form’.16 It is undeniable, however, that the radio show, its half-hour literary segment recorded in London and broadcast in the West Indies every Sunday evening, allowed Caribbean writing in English to emerge as a powerful counterforce in post-war British and Anglophone literature. The glittering (if very male-dominated) cast of contributors and editors included George Lamming, Sam Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, John Figueroa, Claude McKay, and others. The editor, Henry Swanzy, reminded readers in 1948 that besides providing ‘an outlet for writers who would otherwise be mute, a means of inter-communication with like minds’, the BBC was subsidizing West Indian writing to the tune of £1500 a year in programme fees alone.17

V. S. Naipaul, who took over from the Irishman Swanzy in 1954 as editor of Caribbean Voices, recounts composing the first lines of his first ‘publishable’ book, Miguel Street, on ‘“borrowed”, non-rustle BBC paper: it seemed more casual, less likely to attract failure’.18 If he had left Trinidad voluntarily to become a writer, the transferential circuit of the broadcasting programme made it ‘necessary to go back’. It was, Naipaul adds, ‘the beginning of self-knowledge’.19 Naipaul’s own on-air commentary could be called anti-Modernist in its impatience with the formal experimentation and difficult technique that are hallmarks of auto-referential art. He advocates, for the West Indian novel, an unaffected yet vigorous language and style, and straightforward (if highly crafted) narrative structures. As Caribbean critics were quick to point out, the folk themes and local styles of Miguel Street can be found in short stories published between 1929 and 1951 by Naipaul’s fellow Caribbean writers: Miguel Street itself is a composite of literary representations of stultifying Port of Spain streets. The telepathy of BBC Caribbean Voices helped the new author re-find Trinidad as the starting point, the centre, though, as he would write years later in The Enigma of Arrival, it could no longer hold him, and even though art must give the lie to the myth of realist representation:
‘[t]he first sentence was true: the second invention’.20

One entered French literature only by losing one’s accent’, says Jacques Derrida of his childhood as a Sephardic Jew growing up in colonial Algeria in Monolingualism of the Other: Or, the Prosthesis of the Origin, a philosophical essay framed in autobiographical anamnesis.21 For the Franco-Maghrebian, the imposition of French literature by the colonial master is a ‘brutal severance’ fostering an ‘acute partition’: ‘the one that separates French literature – its history, its works, its models, its cult of the dead, its modes of transmission and celebration, its “posh districts”, its names of authors and editors – from the culture “proper” to “French Algerians”’.22 He hasn’t lost his French-Algerian accent, he says, not all of it, though he thinks it is imperceptible. Its intonation manifests only in private situations, often under emotional duress. No one can detect it by reading, he claims (unless, of course, he himself has declared it):

I retain, no doubt, an acquired reflex from the necessity of this vigilant transformation. I am not proud of it, I make no doctrine of it, but so it is: an accent – any French accent, but above all a strong southern accent – seems incompatible to me with the intellectual dignity of public speech. (Inadmissible, isn’t it? Well, I admit it).23

The accent is a bodily symptom of the ‘hand-to-hand combat with language’, Derrida suggests.24 And perhaps it is, as Ranjana Khanna observes, ‘the racialization of sound in terms of accent that counters the sovereignty of law’.25 Derrida strains to understand his fixation with the purity of the French language despite his life-long questioning of the very motif and axiom of purity, his lifelong commitment to differing and deferment, the non-coincidence and non-correspondence of language with its putative referents. He wonders why he suffers when someone falls short of it, or when he himself is caught red-handed violating the law of the language. But then, Derrida explains, the last will of the language, of which he is the self-appointed ‘hero-martyr-pioneer-outlaw-legislator’, is not in its perfect coincidence with its lexicon, grammar, stylistic or poetical decorum, all of which he would be tempted to ‘violate’ and ‘burn’.26 The fidelity of language is not to ‘anything that is given, but only to that which is to come’.27 The hegemonic imposition of monolingualism, Derrida states, gives a language, a unique idiom, but only by promising to give it. If the colonized doesn’t own the colonizer’s language, neither does the colonizer, for every language, by virtue of being conversational, relational, and extroverted in its energies, is the language of the other, gravitating to a ‘heterological opening’.28 It is to this idea of impure ‘purity’, Derrida claims, that he surrenders ‘with the almost always premeditated intention of seeing to it that it cannot return’: the book’s subtitle, ‘the Prosthesis of Origin’, speaks to this refutation of origins as authentic, or as not-prosthetic.29 It is as if Derrida wants the language to set aside its universalist pretensions to become embodied, local, vulnerable, its absolute habitat marked by the difference of exile. Whether or not we fall for this Derridean sleight of hand whereby monolingualism becomes incalculable and multiple, whether or not we agree, with Derrida’s startling claim, that all culture, not simply the culture unilaterally imposed by aggressive imperialism is ‘originarily colonial’ it is impossible to overlook the unsublimated and gendered violence in this migrant fantasy whereby, ‘an incomprehensible guest, a newcomer without assignable origin, would make the said language come to him, forcing the language then to speak itself by itself, in another way, in his language’.30

Discussing his Pulitzer-winning 2007 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz traces the book idea to Mexico City, where he had spent the year of his Guggenheim fellowship:

Anyway, one time after a night of partying I picked up a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, and I said Oscar Wilde’s name in Dominican and it came out ‘Oscar Wao’. A quick joke, but the name stayed with me, and the next thing you know, I had this vision of a poor, doomed ghetto nerd, the kind of ghetto nerd I would have been had I not been discovered by girls the first year out of high school.31

In the novel, Oscar DeLeon Cabral gets his nickname at a Halloween party when his prize Doctor Who costume makes him look, Yunior thinks, ‘like that fat homo Oscar Wilde’.32 Melvin mishears Wilde as ‘Wao’ and declares ‘Oscar Wao, quién es Oscar Wao’.33 (‘And the tragedy? After a couple of weeks dude started answering to it’, adds Yunior, the narrator). This random act of naming, and the botched relay of meaning it signifies, proves to be a legitimating appellation for Wao, a cosmic misfit, a creature of fatal misrecognitions and missteps. A game fanatic who can’t dance and can’t get women, he is a failed Dominican stereotype (but not a genuine article even by default). Diaz’s point, of course, is that ‘[N]ot all Dominican men are macho peacocks, and not all sci-fi, anime, and Dungeons and Dragons fanatics are white boys’, as the New York Times review puts it.34 Haunted by history yet utterly powerless to change it, Oscar lives in the world of fantasy and science fiction, the ‘more speculative genres’, as he airily calls them, as he plots his own masterpiece.35 Book-obsessed, thesaurus-dependent, his heart sick with desire for a string of unattainable women, Oscar is eventually destroyed by the random corruption and everyday violence of the post-Trujillo Dominican Republic (despite his not assuming a proactive stance for or against it).

But the novel is not really about Oscar: it is a coming-to-America story that makes much of the enunciative non-correspondence of ‘Wilde’ and ‘Wao’, an uncanny place in which the nameless life can be entertained. Its entrenched literariness draws attention to the ways in which canonical and emergent literatures risk apprehending and positing social reality through form, and about the new ways in which their fictive powers may be allowed to gloriously fail. The novel, which has masses of untranslated, glossed, and semi-glossed Spanish, Spanglish, ‘Negropolitan’ and street slang as well as thirty-three lengthy footnotes (‘For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history’), is not simply highlighting pre-existing cultural hierarchies and marginalisation (white North America’s limited knowledge of Dominican history, for one): by multiplying unknown words and phrases that do not presuppose a consensual readership or even lend themselves to a contextual understanding, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is blatantly mimicking the idiom of metropolitan arrival to baffle the Western(ised) reader’s investment in the translators and translated characters who make this genre viable for the global marketplace. In Monolingualism of the Other, Derrida anticipates heterological openings in monological and tautological languages, the footfall of languages ‘without an itinerary and, above all, without any superhighway of goodness knows what information’.36 Call me a hopeless dreamer, but English literature can hardly reach itself, or self-realise as metalanguage, if it no longer knows where it is coming from.

Ankhi Mukherjee is an Associate Professor of the English Faculty at Oxford University and a Fellow of Wadham College. Her most recent monograph, What is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (Stanford Univeristy Press, 2013), examines the residual influence of the Eurocentric canon on postcolonial and world literatures. Her current project, entitled Unseen City: Travelling Psychoanalysis and the Urban Poor, examines the relationship between psychoanalysis, race and poverty in the context of global cities.

1 Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (New York: Norton, 1982), p. 65.

2 Ibid., p. 35.

3 T. S. Eliot, ‘In Memory of Henry James’, Egoist, 5 (January 1918), pp. 1-2.

4 See Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002).

5 Stephen Stepanchev, ‘The Origin of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Modern Language Notes, 66.6 (June 1951), 400-401, p. 401.

6 Cited in Stepanchev, p. 401.

7 Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984), p. 17.

8 Ibid., p. 19.

9 Ibid., p. 13.

10 Ibid., p. 30.

11 Ibid., p. 31.

12 Juan A. Suárez, ‘T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, the Gramaphone, and the Modernist Discourse Network’, New Literary History, 32.3 (2001), 747-768.

13 A. David Moody, Tracing T. S. Eliot’s Spirit: Essay on His Poetry and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 7.

14 Ibid.

15 Brathwaite, p. 18.

16 See Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh (eds), The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), p. 215; quoting George Lamming, Water With Berries (London: Longman, 1971), p. 9.

17 Cited in ibid., pp. 214-15.

18 V. S. Naipul, Literary Occasions: Essays (Basingstoke: Picador, 2004), p. 65.

19 Ibid., p. 69.

20 Ibid., p. 50.

21 Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, the Prosthesis of Origin, trans. Patrick Mensah (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 45.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., p. 46.

24 Ibid.

25 Ranjana Khanna, Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830-Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 134.

26 Derrida, p. 47.

27 Ibid., my italics.

28 Ibid., p. 69.

29 Ibid., p. 47.

30 Ibid., p. 39, 51.

32 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Faber & Faber, 2008), p. 181.

33 Ibid.

34 A. O. Scott, ‘Dreaming in Spanglish’, The New York Times, 30 September 2007 <; [accessed 11 May 2015], para. 6.

35 Diaz, p. 43.

36 Derrida, p. 61.

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