Pronounce It Right!

I am a boiling pot of Englishes, bubbling frantically as they collide. When you massacre words in movies and other spoken things, I murmur them the right way until the foam of my wrath subsides. Inside, my fury festers… But yes, of course yours is not the right way to pronounce these words! It’s not waa’er, it’s not whawta, it’s just—water, what-er. Wand, not wond, for crying out loud, and naaasty sets the teeth on edge—can’t you just say nasty? But it’s paaass, not paess, and it’s Paaakisstaan—must you Packiztann it?! What do you mean I don’t get to tell you how to say it? It is my country’s name. Pronounce it right! No, you shall not draw back now in bewilderment. You began this. You pounce on me at every turn with the indrawn hiss and the lifted eyebrow of supercilious pity. You won’t even let me say o-one, the way my people have said it for a hundred years and more. No, it has to be av-un, ‘because that’s how we say it in English.’ Very well, you may have oven; I concede it. But I must have Pakistan. And poem. I must have poem. Po-em it shall be, and not pomme. I will not say apples, voyons, when I mean dragons! Poems are splendor sleeping furled inside their forms like embryos in eggshells, and I need you to hatch them with me. Else you could have gone on calling them fruit with my goodwill…but what I have begun you must finish, or it perishes. So they must be po-ems and not pommes. Do you understand? No. Then listen. Listen to my wrymlings whispering in their dreams. ‘Drop in the ocean, remember who you are. Drop in the ocean, remember…’

Hibah Shabkhez

What is the significance of this work to you?

This is something I have been wanting to write about forever: how some accents are 'good' and some 'bad', how where you were born in the world determines whether your way of pronouncing a language is accounted dialectical variation or incompetence, and whether other people will bother to try pronouncing a word your way or not, even if it is your name or your country or city. The social, cultural, economic etc. impact of this has been studied academically, but here I simply wanted to scream out the frustration and the ambivalence that comes with being under constant scrutiny in the language you read and write in most fluently, and with the rather sickening realization that you're just as bad as the people you're yelling at when it comes to accepting differences, in pronunciations and in everything else.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

I wanted a kind of writing unconstrained by genre — not quite a story, not quite a poem, and certainly not an essay — that could express in its very form the chaotic emotional state that inspired it: the curious blend of anger and confusion that comes with repeatedly having to explain the 'obvious' and failing to get through, the almost-heartbreak of loving a language that seems reluctant to love you back, the struggle for identity in a morass of self-doubt. This hybrid — flash non-fiction? prose-poem? — was the only form that managed to hold them at all.

What was your process for creating this work?

First I wrote this down by hand, scribbling and scratching with expletives galore. Then, a few days after I had nearly scrunched it up and binned it, I typed it out and started pruning off the rawest edges, testing it for clarity and (in)coherence by reading it aloud until it felt ready. I don't suppose I shall ever be quite satisfied with it, and every single time I read it I think of new things ... but deep down, I also sort of know that if there is something else I have to say, it must find other works — poems, stories, proems like this, whatever it likes — to be said in; this work is finished.

Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in Wellington Street Review, Black Bough, Nine Muses, Borrowed Solace, Ligeia, Cordite Poetry, and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her.

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