"Gabble Like a Thing Most Brutish"

How Caliban, The Tempest, and a poet’s exile became the perfect storm for a first book.

I’ve spent a good part of the last 14 years thinking about Caliban. The first time I read The Tempest, his anguish and corrugated selfhood spoke to me so acutely, I felt him to be real. His fevered dreaming as a slave in a stolen kingdom has also been my dreaming, his twangling instruments my own strange music.

Like him, I’ve always been an outsider. Home for me has always been a place of unbelonging. This is the strange yet all-too-familiar exile of living in the Caribbean, of being a part of the African diaspora: belonging in two places and no place at all. Home was not my island, which never belonged to us Jamaicans, though it’s all we’ve known, and home was not my family’s house, which we’ve always rented, all of us acutely aware of the fact that we were living in borrowed space, that we could never truly be ourselves there. Home was not the body. Never the body—grown too tall and gangly too quickly, grown toward womanhood too late. Like a city built for myself, home was a place I carved out in my head, where the words were always the right words, where I could speak in English or patois, could formulate a song or a self. Home for me has always been poetry.

It was the Old Poet, a Trinidadian writer and mentor, who first got me thinking about Caliban. At 15, I had just graduated from high school and for the first time faced the grim reality of a hopeless future that most Jamaicans understand to be the bleak circumstance of their birth. No one dared dream too far outside the confines of what history ungifted us, the poverty of this “developing country.” Neither of my parents had gone to college—going to a university was something hazy on the blurred horizon, far away and intangible—no one in my family knew how to apply to colleges or how they would ever afford them. I had been the top student at a private high school founded by rich white Jamaicans and American expats, who had also endowed a full scholarship for poor and talented students like me. Though I had flourished there, I realized much too late that this school had also prepared me for a future at an American university that my family did not have the means or the immigration papers to supply me with. While everyone in my class left for new lives and schools abroad, I stayed home, optionless.

Days grew into weeks, weeks into a year. I turned inward, turned to poetry as the only way to make sense of the world I had been given. In Montego Bay, we had scant access to books. I read everything I could find. I studied the Oxford English Dictionary. At 16, I submitted my first poem to be published in the Jamaica Observer, a riff off Plath’s “Daddy.” I still remember when the phone rang, and the Old Poet said with much authority: “This is serious. You have to come to Kingston and work with me.” For the first time, I felt seen. My parents (who didn’t have a car) hired a taximan who would drive me and my mother three and a half hours each way from Montego Bay to Kingston to visit the Old Poet every week. He gave me access to his impressive bookshelves and demanded I read the classics. Life felt full of possibilities as I dared to peer into the impoverished face of my own hope once again. For five years, I studied poetry, wrote, and workshopped with the Old Poet, a vital education that nourished my mind and kept me hungry until I finally received a full scholarship to go to college, six years after high school. I read and recited Yeats, Chaucer, Stevens, Walcott, Shakespeare. I performed my lessons as one bewitched.  

Back then, the Old Poet was a god until, like all men, he wasn’t. “The Tempest is Shakespeare’s best,” he said with finality. “In each line, we can hear the rhythms of the sea as a poet who is nearing the end of his life.” In a lost letter that I remember well, he wrote, “Gollum is very much like a Caliban-figure, both gnarled and tortured,” and with those words, he pried open my own affinity for anguish—at this age I was very much drawn to anything suffering. So the damage was done—gone was my flirtation with the comedies, promises of star-crossed meetings that so appealed to youth—there in its place, blooming darkly, was my obsession with the ocean of magic and finality of The Tempest, still unaware that this ocean of magic and finality was the story of Jamaica itself. The play tells of Prospero, exiled from Milan and shipwrecked on an island, where he banishes the witch Sycorax (Caliban’s mother) and somehow learns enough magic to subjugate the island and its inhabitants in the flesh (Caliban) and spirit (Ariel). Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, too, is under his control.

As the first child of four, the fact of my girlhood was already disappointing. Very briefly, I danced with Miranda’s wild-eyed wonder under her father’s strict patriarchy as something similar to my own; I lived in a no-nonsense, disciplinary, Rastafarian household. We were a family of three girls and one boy, and every year that my sisters and I grew older so too did the separation between my father and my brother and the women in the house. Rastas openly accepted that a woman’s rightful place was in childrearing and household duties, to be confined to the kitchen except when she was menstruating. Many of my father’s Rasta friends refused to eat food cooked by a woman on her period and even made their menstruating wives sleep in a separate bedroom. Finally, the body fulfilled its dark promise and turned against me. Dear Miranda, Who taught you how to bleed? Did you anticipate and dread its arrival for many moons, like me? This was my first reading—that being a young woman exempted me from the same freedoms my brother had, that being a woman was the original site of exile. Like most Jamaicans, I arched toward another world, hoping to make a new place for myself. In America, wouldn’t I be my own Miranda, as reflected through a dark mirror—“O brave new world / That hath such people in’t!” Dear Jamaica, Is it true what Kamau Brathwaite said? That “the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility, whether that migration is in fact or by metaphor.”? He has suggested that a Caribbean person becomes a Caribbean person only when they actually leave the Caribbean. Perhaps this is true.

The thick weed of the Sargasso, like the Middle Passage, is the largest gathering of all that is lost, clinging to the ghosts of things that never were. And the lost things, men and women of the African diaspora, scattered to sea on imperial ash, are now washed ashore in a postcolonial world. But what fractures the identity of the marginalized is the recognition of new, strange selves in that dark mirror, a tortured contemplation of duality—English language grown thick inside an African mouth. How do West Indian poets make sense of it, when the very language we speak betrays the history of our selves? Coming to America forced me to consider my blackness in a new light. Here, the world held me at arm’s length and highlighted all my differences as a strangeness: remarkable and invisible all at once. Being one of only four or five black students in the nearly all-white Bennington College cast a sharp spotlight on the actual site of my lingering exile—my blackness.

This was my second reading. It was a vital lesson: Here I was on a scholarship, six years after leaving high school, at another late start, estranged in another place. Fixed in time. I had left so much behind, but I had kept The Tempest. I carried the words and verses with me; the familiarity of its violence broke and reset daily in my bones. It was not Miranda, but Caliban who represented the fragmented psyche of West Indian poets like me. This, I realized, was the storm I carried around inside, the hurricane I was born under. Over the course of four years in the bright white bubble of Vermont, I encountered Caliban at the most important moments of my education. I was nearly always the only black student in class. Once, a teacher decided to make a hypothetical lesson of my being quiet in class: “For example,” she said, “if our black students never comment in class, then could we infer that all black students are lazy?” Once, a white student wanted to enact a minstrel show, blackface and all, as his final senior project. And so on. In a class on Shakespeare’s poetry, we were tasked to memorize and recite a verse from any of his plays. It didn’t seem like a choice, as I’d been feeling all along that my exile had always belonged to Caliban, who speaks entirely in lyric. I devoured the verse like fire and spoke each word as if I’d always known them. Because I had. Like Caliban, I was token, othered. Monstrous even. Like him, I felt home hardening like a wayward seed in my gut. I had lived and known each line to be true. His home was my home. His dis-ease:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
                Caliban, (Act 3, Scene 2, 135-143)

Dear Caliban, You know the rest of this story as if you had lived it yourself. In a Bennington workshop, a white woman first crossed her pen marks across the Jamaican patois in my story and wrote over and over: “Can you say this in English?” “Can you say this in English?” When I felt the too-familiar rage rise up in my throat and the slow choke of hurt that these words filled me with, I finally understood exactly why I was writing. In the face of prejudice, something indestructible had flourished. What had been only a hardening seed finally devoured all the air in my lungs and all by itself grew roots, became cannibal. The next week, I returned to workshop with a message I titled simply “Literary Manifesto.” It was here that I would first declare myself as Caliban:

Always at my heart is the quote of Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite: “The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” This quote has been plaguing me recently, and defines what I’m most afraid of with this project—that presenting this [work] piecemeal to a coven of foreigners has somewhat corrupted the integrity of the work. Many people in this workshop have sought to subdue the work with the colonial marks of their pens—questioning the flora, fauna, and dialect of my native land, questions that have offended and plagued me as I contemplated who I was writing for. … Like Caliban, I have to question my identity as an Other, as defined by the colonist, while I am expected to express myself in the language of the colonist. But I want to define my identity and writing on my own terms, if me haffi bruk it dung inna patois, or iron it out in the Queen’s English—while always keeping the “u” in colour.

Many members of the class—all white—took great offence to this manifesto. Yes, I’d had a flair for rhetoric. I’d called them a “coven of foreigners” and “corn-fed strangers,” their pen marks “colonial.” But it stays with me to this day that they were offended. One student even threw my pages back across the table at me in disgust. Here in this workshop, this wasn’t a dialogue, and I finally understood the truth of America, as Caliban came to understand Prospero as a malevolent visitor—here freedom was only an invented jingle and not only would I never know the notes, I would always be exiled by its language.

This is my third reading. Historically and psychologically, the greatest cruelty of Prospero is not only the enforcement of his worldview but also the imperialism of his language. Caliban is enslaved by Prospero’s rules and laws and is taught Prospero’s language—in what Miranda declares a great kindness: the benevolent cultivation of the savage—but this really benefits only Prospero and Miranda. They arrive at Caliban’s island as cultural hegemonists who expect their language and customs to be understood but make no room for, or even consider, a cultural exchange with Caliban. If Prospero is to be believed, Caliban was born a cultureless animal, with no language, no identity: “thou didst not, savage, / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like /A thing most brutish.” Prospero’s enslavement does not foster Caliban’s “cultivation” but instead hastens the eradication of his being; the autochthony of his personhood, written asunder.

What woman in Caliban’s position wouldn’t rage? Who wouldn’t feel a biological imperative to rebel, to people the “isle with Calibans”? In rebellion, Caliban seethes and plots, cursing Prospero’s linguistic imperialism; he wants to kill Prospero as much he wants to kill the part of Prospero that is within himself—“You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” Shakespeare’s measured representation of Caliban’s fractured psyche is still the same broken reflection with which modern Caribbean people must contend. We are all Caliban. As Cuban essayist and critic Roberto Fernández Retamar explores in his essay “Caliban,” a postcolonial examination of Latin American and Caribbean identity, Caliban is our dark mirror and a direct metaphor of the chaotic Caribbean soul:

Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood. What else can Caliban do but use that same language—today he has no other—to curse him, to wish that the “red plague” would fall on him? I know no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, of our reality. …what is our history, what is our culture, if not the history and culture of Caliban?

Over the years, as I continued to navigate a life in the mostly white and cobwebbed corners of American academia, I realized that my poetry was not only informed by The Tempest itself, but that the voice in many of my poems was the voice of Caliban, as I had claimed him. Like Césaire and Brathwaite before me, how could I not identify with Caliban, the “savage” Prospero uses to catch fish and gather wood, whom Prospero uses to teach him the secrets of the island, and who speaks almost entirely from the root of his body? Caliban’s world is ruined when Prospero and Miranda arrive, and he is forcefully voided of his autonomy. He faces exile not only in his own land but also in his own skin (his thoughts are no longer in his own words), a psychic dilemma that overturns his world entirely, leaving Prospero as the grand arbiter of the change on the island. Both linguistically and metaphorically, the character of Caliban is a direct representation of what is seen as barbaric in me—the savage subaltern in the imperial narrativization of history.

Ever in the shadows of the play, even Caliban’s features are never quite precisely described—Shakespeare’s list of characters describe him simply as a “savage and deformed native of the island, Prospero’s slave,” and he is continuously referred to as a “monster” by the other characters inhabiting The Tempest, ambiguously described as being an animal or half-animal. Trinculo and Stefano degradingly address Caliban as “this puppy-headed monster. / A most scurvy monster!” “half a fish, and half a monster,” and “debauched fish.” From Shakespeare’s own evidence, we can assert that Caliban is not an animal—he is a sentient man, with his own thoughts and feelings, his own wants and claims to the island, who naturally dreams of peopling the “isle with Calibans.” The very name Caliban is a Shakespearean anagram of the word cannibal, the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, which originated from caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh. It is there that the word Caribbean originated. By simply being born Caribbean, all “West Indian” people are already, etymologically, born savage. Whole worlds codified around my discovery of this simple fact of language, the linguistic fact of my birth, and I knew that from this one barbarous root, my debut poetry collection, Cannibal, was born.

Here I was, in a hurricane. I could not escape the work. Over the course of two and a half years, I worked on the manuscript of Cannibal (which the University of Nebraska Press published this month). In each new poem I wrote, I noticed the word cannibal popping up, if not in a line, then in the ghost meter of its sea. As I began organizing the book into sections, I realized that each section spoke to all these scattered points of exile—exile at home, exile of being in America, exile of the female body, and the exile of the English language. Quotes from Caliban, Prospero, and Miranda all reflected these different aspects of what had been lost, then found again in The Tempest, through a dark mirror. Soon I realized that Cannibal was in direct collision with The Tempest, interrogating these disruptive histories and the power of the language I live with.

It has always been my hope that beyond the margins of The Tempest, Caliban might find beauty and power in his own nature, flawed or not. The last poem I wrote for Cannibal, “Crania Americana,” tackles white supremacy and pseudo-scientific texts, sung through the defiant throat of Caliban, who seeks control of his assumed “savagery” on his own terms. In this poem, he boldly wears his “brutish” gabble “like a diadem, / this flecked crown of dictions, / this bioluminescence.” Circling the ocean-magic and a poet’s finality at the end of his life, I combed through The Tempest for every word and slur Caliban was called and alchemized there the rage of my family, my country, my identity. Mother, your cannibal lives there. What was once seen as monstrous, I sought to make beautiful. This was my final reading. Caliban’s anger is my father’s anger is my anger. What my native dialect of patois represents, and what my poetry represents, is not only a linguistic rebellion against colonization but also a willful remaking of the world to reflect all aspects of the Caribbean self. I am Caliban. I am cannibal. Dear Father, may I unjungle it?


Originally Published: September 20th, 2016

Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), won a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and...

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  1. September 23, 2016
     adam strauss

    Superb essay; thank you, Safiya!

  2. September 24, 2016
     Mike Houlding


  3. September 24, 2016
     Ryan Shelton

    This essay is like
    that scene where
    the hero--
    beaten down
    left for dead,
    bones broken
    lip bleeding,
    eye swollen shut,
    through tears of pain and anger,
    and teeth clinched with the absolute certainty of true justice--
    makes one final offer of peace to the villain.

    And and the villain
    sneers with disdain.

    And we know what comes next.

  4. September 24, 2016

    Whenever I read--or, more accurately, suffer through--a piece such as this, I wish that Shakespeare (or whichever Dead White Male is evoked) were alive both to defend and distance himself from his appropriator.

  5. September 24, 2016

    Except of course that Caliban's mother was from Algeria and thus a Berber. And at that time Shakespeare the Barbary pirates were a far greater threat to Europeans than the Europeans were to the Berbers.

    His father was an Incubus, which made Caliban a Cambion. And one can get Caliban by changing an "m" to an "l", moving the "i" before the "b" and changing the "o" to an "a". One doesn't even need to supposed an external source, it was a simple alteration.

    Or if one insisted on an external source, the Romani word for blackness is Kaliban. And Shakespeare was familiar with gypsies since he referenced them in 4 separate plays (including using a corrupted Romani expression: in As You Like It).

    Also, Caliban was not a Cannibal. His sin was sexual (as should be the case of a child of an incubus), so there is nothing to associate Caliban to the Carib people. His origin (and the location of the play) was strictly Mediterranean and sin applied more to Gypsy stereotypes of the time in England (i.e. gypsies stealing children as Caliban tried to steal Miranda).

    Which of course is the trouble with so much modern research. They don't let history inform them, they start with their narrative and then project it on everything, regardless of appropriateness. This essay is a prime example of this, Shakespeare deniers have more reason on their side.

  6. September 24, 2016

    What are we supposed to do? Buy Safiya Sinclair's book because she claims to be a victim of the various forces she parades in review in this essay? Quite accomplished she is at evoking Western Guilt, in a measured, low-keyed voice inviting the presumption of sincerity, even innocence. Did anyone prevent her from spending her life speaking and writing Jamaican patois? Probably not. But something did, and what could that something be other than her ambition?

  7. September 25, 2016
     Slow Reader

    I will certainly buy her book! This eloquent essay brought to me a heart-breaking and compelling truth, and forced me to look at the world differently.
    I am in awe of her inner strength and resilience.
    Did you, Poet Saksin, grow up in the kind of stupefying poverty which Sinclair describes? Did you wait years to be able to go to college? We should all be ashamed of how Sinclair was treated by her peer college students.

  8. September 25, 2016
     Slow Reader

    I am really saddened by these negative comments posted about Sinclair's essay, because these critical comments are harsh, intolerant and condescending simply for the purpose of being harsh, intolerant and condescending.
    Let's face it, if we are writers in the world today, we are all appropriators.
    There is really nothing "new" to be said on any subject.
    What makes this essay brilliant is how Sinclair has taken a very old literary work and made it "new" for this Slow Reader.
    Shakespeare, with his love for all things mercurial, transformative and visionary, would have loved this essay and most likely Sinclair's poetry book.

  9. September 25, 2016

    How odd! This week I began writing the memoir I have vowed for years to write. My parents were born in Italy; neither approached the end of an elementary school education. English was my third language. So I have much in common with Safiya Sinclair, and that may account for my finding in her first paragraph words strikingly similar to my own first paragraph.

    But before the midpoint of her essay, I felt like putting my nearly eighty-year old arm around her shoulders and counseling her to rethink her relationship both to her Caribbean identity and to the "European" world against which she so angrily contends. Shakespeare is not Caribbean; in seeking to understand herself through him, she has make a choice, a choice that will render her forever an outsider. But as an outsider myself, I see that as a privilege, a decided advantage. The first sentence of my first chapter is: "I am an American." My second states that not a single gene from the ancestry that made derived from those who made America, yet I am made more profoundly American by the dreams, yearning, and work of the parents who staked themselves to this nation. I am not a member of the Order of the Cincinnati and neither will my son; nor can my daughters join the DAR. So what?

    The complex fruits of Western cultural history have drawn you, Sifiya Sinclair, and using the tools and concepts they gave you has afforded entry into the richness you found so enticing. You were offended by Bennington, yet you didn't leave it; you thereby became part of it and of the legacy, good and ill, of those who created it. To curse it is to loose corrosive agents that will most harm the evident talent you have.

  10. September 25, 2016

    Knowing nothing about me, you presume a lot. As a toddler I was given spill-water from steam locomotives to drink, because my parents, refugees in a bombed-out Europe, tried to bring me and my five month old brother to safety. After that they eked out a living by menial labor in a country where one of them was despised because of his or her origin. I did indeed wait years to be able to go to college, and when I did it was not on a scholarship: it had to be paid for, which I did with some help from my parents, and part-time work. Not once in all this time did I ever, nor did I ever hear my parents, complain of victimhood, point fingers in blame, or try to shame anyone into sympathy on account of this background. But it did sensitize me to what I call the moral parasitism of those who do, a sure sign that they have some growing up to do. When Safiya Sinclair writes a book detailing that process, I'll be glad to buy it.

  11. September 25, 2016
     Slow Reader

    Poet Saskin --
    Please re-read my initial reply -- I presumed nothing about you.
    I asked you two questions, which you chose to answer.
    And now let me say that I am glad I asked those two questions, because you have shared with us an extremely compelling story of your own that has certainly hooked me and a story that I want to read more of.
    So I hope that -- if you have not already published your memoir, you will direct your energies to writing your memoir, writing about what you experienced growing up, what you remember of your traumatic childhood, and how your entire family navigated through life as refugees, what work you did before going to college, how extremely hard it must have been for your parents to struggle to survive in a new country after likely suffering terrible losses in the country they left.
    How was one of your parents despised? Were they African American? Were they Hispanic? Were they Muslim? Were they Jewish? Were they Japanese? Were they Persian? Were they Vietnamese? Were they Russian?
    These are groups that have been despised here in the past, and continue to be despised and humiliated and intimidated in our country today.
    I do stand by my earlier comment -- as readers, and also perhaps writers, of poetry (I will presume you at least read poetry because you read Sinclair's essay) we should be ashamed of how Sinclair was treated by her fellow students; instead of offering constructive criticism of her work, they denigrated and humiliated her.
    I did not find any complaint of victimhood in Sinclair's essay. What I did find is a beautifully-written narrative which exposes the deprivation and intolerance which Sinclair experienced in her country of origin, in her religion of origin, and in the country she moved to, and also shares with this reader the compassion and expansive generosity she was shown by the Old Poet, and the solace and strength she found in poetry and literature.
    If you have published your memoir, please tell us where to find it.

  12. September 26, 2016

    Isn't the problem with trying to lionize Caliban the fact that, in the text, he is imprisoned for trying to rape Miranda? I don't deny that Caliban is an ambivalent figure, but do we really want to make a rapist into a feminist hero? The quote about "peopling the island with Calibans" is much more grim than the author suggests here; the context of the remark, is that, had he not been stopped by Propsero, he would have raped and impregnated Miranda, and forced her to "people the island with Calibans." I don't think we should want to call this a "natural" desire, as the author does here.

    That being said, I don't think the sneering, dismissive tone in some of these posts is appropriate. I enjoyed the article; I just always have difficulty with pieces that glide over the moral complexity of Caliban, and who seem not to have noticed certain aspects of his character.

  13. September 27, 2016
     Slow Reader

    Very interesting perspective, Truth Teller -- thanks for posting!
    This essay has sparked in me great curiosity to learn more about Caliban, and to pursue the points raised by you and TakuanSoho.

  14. September 27, 2016
     Slow Reader

    Frankgado --
    Get thee to your desk and write this memoir!
    What a fascinating story you have to tell ...
    "English was your third language" makes me curious to know what your first two languages were and how these different languages shaped your childhood and youth, your education and long life ...

  15. September 27, 2016
     Slow Reader

    Very interesting, Takuan Soho -- thanks for posting!
    I will read more about your points ...
    I have not read a great deal of Shakespeare, so I am not familiar with the plays in which he referenced "gypsies" -- which ones are those?
    I am wondering if he incorporated the negative stereotypes of "gypsies" of that time, the way he portrayed Shylock as a stereotypical Jew ...
    "They don't let history inform them" -- the narrative of any history depends on who is the historian ...
    Fifty years ago in high school US History, I was taught that slaves were "happy," that their masters "treated them well," and that slaves lacked the intelligence to function as independent persons in society ...
    Also, I believe I read last week that Poland has now made it illegal to use the term "death camp" in their media ...

  16. September 27, 2016

    Bless you for boosting the incentive to get the memoir down before I am myself lowered into silence.
    My first language was Piedmontese, the language of the Monferrato, I lived in a Piedmontese world in Union City, NJ. Even though my father had emigrated to Connecticut fifteen years before marriage, my family lived in a Piedmontese world. The butcher and the parish priest had been my father's classmates. My sensitivity to language was further sharpened by the fact that Piedmontese changes from village to village. Negation in my father's village, for instance, is achieved through "pas" (pronounced in the French way); in my mother's, through "nein) (rhymes with "rang.)" My mother's "yester" was "seira"; my father's, "ier." And so on;

    My second language language was Italian. My mother relied exclusively on the Italian radio stations from New York City and Jersey City for news and entertainment,. The radio was on constantly during the day as she sewed fancy bodices for the garment district. Somehow, I always understood Italian, even though I did not speak it and it was not spoken to me by the occasional Tuscan or Roman who came to our apartment. (Had we spoken Piedmontese to them, they would not have understood.)

    My third language was English, which I began learning when I attended kindergarten. I remember the teacher, on my first day, telling me to hang my coat in the wardrobe. The instruction meant nothing to me, but when she pointed to my coat, I removed it and laid in on a chair, as I did at home. She repeated "wardrobe" several times and pointed to the hooks in a walled area at the back of the room.

    Language was at the center of my comprehension of the world, and I was struck by the difference in my sense of an object, depending on the language of its identification. I vividly remember the sudden awareness that a pocket book was opened and closed like a book and that it had pockets. Then, with that understanding of the word's inner meaning, I repeated it, over and over with increasing velocity to appreciate the word as mere sound, stripped of meaning.

    Decades later, I found myself surrounded by Swedish (and to a lesser extent, Danish). In learning Swedish, I resiled to the experience of being a child again.

    In the seventh grade, like the rest of my class, I was tested for vocabulary..Taken aside after the results were reported, I was told that my vocabulary was greater than that employed by the New York Times..I was very proud of that; it confirmed my confidence in myself. In retrospect, I understand why I became a professor of English and an author, even though, through all my teens, I pointed toward a career in law.

    My apologies for going on so long.

  17. September 28, 2016
     John Mountfort

    Too bad temperance in making judgments was not among the lessons of an interesting life.

    A beautifully written essay, by the way. Perhaps art can only flourish in petty self-absorption. You have seen only what it served you to see. What a pity... though not for art.

  18. September 29, 2016

    Safiya Sinclair's story absorbs me because I share a significant measure of her "origin story" – more than I care to detail here. Suffice it to say that I can (and do) empathize with her experience more than a general reader might or even could, enough to appreciate her accomplishment in taking ownership (some call this "appropriation") of the language and literary tradition of our historical masters and therein forging her authentic voice… because we do hear her distinctive timbres which clearly many have striven to silence and doubtlessly others will seek to ignore or disparage, simply for deeming her a bastard interloper, in their eyes usurping with myopic self-absorption that which can’t be hers.

    Here's the news: Safiya Sinclair has arrived, and hers is a voice that will not be muted, one to which I hope to hearken and pay heed for a long time to come.

  19. September 29, 2016
     Slow Reader

    Frankgado --
    Truly I loved this!
    Please sit down and write without stopping; don't self-censor yourself, you can edit your writings later ...
    So much I would like to read more about -- what has happened to that small cultural community where you grew up?
    What was it like to grow up in that community?
    How did you choose to become a professor of English, and not a professor of Romance languages ...
    And how did you end up in Scandinavia ...
    Professor of English versus becoming a lawyer? You made the right choice, trust me.

  20. September 29, 2016

    Your questions have been the very questions I have asked myself over the years; they are evocative to the writing of the memoir. To wait for the answers in print, however, would try your patience.I'll supply some quick answers here so as not to try the patience of this site's visitors. Should your curiosity desire more or move you to comment, please write to me at

    When I was in high school in another town, I once asked my father what had become of the web of piemontesi who would attend the fall and spring dinner dances at Mazzini Hall and gather at a picnic atop the Palisades to pick the tiny, bittersweet cherries for a three-year soaking in grappa, sing mazurkas, and tell stories of varied pasts He answered, simply, they made money, bought houses in the suburbs, and drifted apart. Their children never connected, and when they married outside our circle and had children, they absorbed their parents' attention. We all became Italian-Americans.

    Why a professor of English? One answer is that I was secure enough in my Piedmontese-Italian identity not to need to reinforce it. My parents loved their new country, and I was their future in it. The world that stimulated my thoughts expressed itself in English, so, without thinking about it, I grew in the direction of the English language. The larger my vocabulary, the greater my understanding and capacity to engage that boundless realm. The community of my early youth was a special island, precious but moribund, from which I had set sail.

    Why not a professor of Romance languages? I've wondered about that; clearly I would have had an advantage in entering that precinct of academe. But my enthusiasm in college was for literature as an arena of ideas. I thought Jane Austen and Emily Bronte and E. M. Forster--even Joyce, for all his brilliance--rather sterile and parochial. In contrast, Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka dared confront life's profundity. Moreover, American literature showed a vibrancy in seeking to define the spirit of a fledgling nation that, even in it lesser accomplishments, uniquely intrigued my imagination. (At 79, twenty years retired, I still ponder that literary enterprise. In a very real sense, America's writers have felt themselves charged to explain America to its people. If I manage to finish my memoir, that's the subject that will next enlist my pen. Or my perplexing computer.)

    How Scandinavia? I was in college at that magical moment when the movies became cinema, when exploitation of illusion ebbed enough to allow the moving image to construe life's realities. Three filmmakers stood above the rest for me: Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman. I already understood Fellini, in the most radical way. Kurosawa's language and culture were ultimately unscaleable for me. But Bergman was close enough for my comprehension, yet sufficiently alien to whet my desire to cut deeper than the subtitles. When I saw a post in Sweden offered by the Fulbright Commission, I applied. And was chosen. Perhaps no roll of the dice has had more decisive consequences. The seventeen years I devoted my book on Bergman cost me a pivotal span of time I should have used to write about American literature. The cost to my personal life was steeper and more painful

  21. September 30, 2016
     Lee-Ann Liles

    I've always read The Tempest was about Bermuda...

  22. October 9, 2016

    I would be happy to take Slow Reader's bet regarding how Shakespeare would likely react to Sinclair's piece.

    As for Slow Reader's specific observation, it embodies exactly the vice he criticizes in others. It also fails to address the specific point I raise about "cultural appropriation" and double standards, aside from a lazy generalization at which Sinclair herself would likely bristle, and an incoherent self-contradiction that, as near as I can tell, is supposed to be resolved by "scare quotes" around the word new.