Language has long been used to destroy, control and denigrate the ways of knowing and being of those subject to colonialism and racism. In this piece, poet and activist lisa luxx traces these colonial roots, as well as the inventive linguistic creolisations of imposed languages that poets have used to resist domestication, “to rewild their grammatology” and “To dream in their own language.”

Mohammed El-Kurd told us recently on a Zoom webinar that in the courts of occupied Palestine, the legal language is Hebrew, so whole families would sit together in a courtroom whispering to one another, trying to piece together – through the various words they understood – what was being held against them. What was being decided. This, he says, is apartheid in language; colonialism in language. Having your life and safety dictated to you, on your own land, in the settler’s tongue.

The policing of citizens begins with being bound by a single dominant language to the governing body. Compulsory vernacular is the very foundation of citizenship; or indeed the subservience of a colonised subject, and the measure of the “civilised”. The language used to write constitutions, policies, surveillance manuals and laws is a tool of expulsion or incarceration.

With that in mind, to break grammatical rules is more than artistic discretion. Political poets have long shown us that disruptive linguistic choices are a form of resistance. Compulsory grammatology dictates the body-politic. Poetry is a place/space that interrupts this relationship. Defiance exists in our spelling and lineation. In this way transgression enters our communal imagination.

Latin American scholar Beatriz Gonzalez-Stéphan writes about how the written word is a mechanism of legal power. Standardised language creates “citizens of the polis” by “restraining them within an invisible web of laws, rules, and policing texts.” The making of a law-abiding citizen is the constitution and also dictates and delineates the civilised.

Why does the particular language the laws are written in matter? Because indigenous languages were thought to be lawless: to be considered a legal civilised citizen, by a territorial government, an individual must speak the language of that government’s disciplinary writings. The rise of the “learned” government, Gonzalez-Stéphan writes, ran parallel with the extermination of Indians and peasant nomads in Latin America. Homogenised language was a tactic to “domesticate different communities that offered resistance to difficult negotiations.” Compulsory education is the schooling of that discipline.

In compulsory education, a pupil’s failing of compulsory grammatology taught in schools is often an early experience of punishment. A child’s first time being told they are Not Enough; uncivilised, a failure to the system. How often do these punishments land on children who are raised in varying vernaculars or with undetected learning difficulties? How many times are young people made to feel unworthy or underdeveloped, because of their relationship with standardised English.

My mother has always told me that I often mixed-up sentence structure and used words incorrectly as a young person, and that made her more interested in what I was trying to say. I also remember my year 6 English teacher teaching me how to use a semi-colon, and the praise I got for mastering that. I know what made me an essayist was Mr Machinton, what made me a poet was my mother’s ear.

Queer feminist Chicano writer Gloria Anzaldua writes about being punished for speaking Mexican during recess. Her most well-known book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza weaves in and out of poetry, prose, Spanish and English. She asks: “how do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it?” Poetry educators, knowing all we do, must enter classrooms to encourage “underachievers” to re-wild their grammatology; to defy prescription. To dream in their own language.

I think about this in terms of the liminal space occupied by mixed heritage people like myself. The gap between languages is a no-man’s land, much like the land between two borders – occupied by both states and occupied by neither. This is a poetry of parapraxis, or where wrong words become what I call ‘illegitimate poetry’ like Aria Aber’s Mother of all Balms. The language of displacement is subjective and singular. It is perfectly disorientating to the ear that cannot forgive misunderstanding. Long may we disorientate the unforgiving.

Gloria Anzaldua’s poetry in weaving English and Chicano – is an unwillingness to be understood outside her kinfolk. It is a means of self-respect; “until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”

June Jordan famously wrote is AAVE, also known as Black English. She pushed back against White English being the ‘Standard’ and how America exclusively implements White English. Her poems are runnin and fadin, outtasteam and fullafat, her language is rich with subjectivity that resists standardisation. She once wrote, “poetry means taking control of the language of your life.”

I am enamoured by Aimé Césaire’s contributions to the decolonial movements of the post-World War period. Born in Martinique, which is a territory of the French Republic, Césaire grew up speaking French. He moved to Paris for university and became an early member of the Surrealist movement, because “Poetry was for me the only way to brea9k the stranglehold the accepted French form held on me.” Césaire drew on surrealism to co-found the Negritude movement with his wife, Suzanne.

For Césaire, French was a point of departure. He wanted to bend the language against itself, to create “an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.” His academic texts began to read as poems. His poetry, he says, was born of him becoming conscious that he belonged to “the condition of the Negro.”

I have critiqued myself through every step of writing this essay, as to whether I might disintegrate language through the text, but my desire for you to understand my argument has overcome me.

I’m reminded of Amin Maalouf’s book On Identity, where he writes that every individual wants to be understood, more than anything. Yet, which way does the wind of language blow – from west to east. We know that. Who ends up writing books on identity? Whose poems are only commissioned when tackling identity? Who is being misunderstood, and who is forced to learn English or French to attend to that?

Marwa Helal created a form of poetry called The Arabic. Her poem called Poem to Be Read from Right to Left was written as an assault on people who were English as Only Language speakers, who exercised superiority over those who use English as a Second Language. Helal wanted to transfer that feeling of being patronised. She did so by inventing a form that “vehemently rejects” the English as Only Language speaker. It is written right to left, including an Arabic letter and an Arabic footnote.

This reminds me of a collaboration between poet Nilufar Karimi and Eliseo Ortiz. “Our collaboration was born out of a shared interest in investigating the language and symbolism nations use to enforce violence on their populations,” they wrote in Poetry magazine, in November 2021. Their collaboration explores “the role of language in border-making.” They created an open-source font to be available alongside their literary works; when you click on the link to download, it says: ‘YOU ARE READING A BOUNDARY.’ Each letter in their font alphabet is made from a borderline constructed on the map between 2000 and 2020.

Mohammed El Kurd later said he believed poetry could inform people, and accompany people, but it could not make a checkpoint crumble and disappear. Which is a grounding note. Does it matter if I choose not to capitalise the gods, nor nation states? Does it matter that I intentionally de-capitalise my name?

Practically speaking, of course not. Though, reprieve too can be valuable, choosing to be exclusive in the face of colonial authoritarian systems is self-preservation. Write a lawless language, because in poetics we roam a little freer. Teach poetry, as Emily Jungmin Yoon said, as “a resistance against the language that governs us.”


lisa luxx is an activist, poet and writer of British and Syrian heritage. Her poems and essays are published internationally. Her work has been broadcast on Channel 4, BBC Radio 4 and TEDx. In 2021 she toured UK theatres with the show for her verse play Eating the Copper Apple, produced by a team of all Arab women artists. Her debut book Fetch Your Mother’s Heart is out now.

Twitter: @lisaluxx_

Instagram: luxxy_luxx

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