UU lecturer and poet Mia You:

‘We should embrace the fact that we have a multilingual community’

Mia You
Photo: Mohana Zwaga

“Nowadays, the dominance of English is so great that Dutch is being undermined. The wealth of one’s language is being exchanged for the poor knowledge of a foreign one,” argued writers René Appel and Nelleke Noordervliet in an op-ed published by the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant in 2019 (available without paywall on LexisUni, Ed). In their view, university education offered in English is partly to blame. 

More recently, public broadcaster NOS highlighted how young people in the Netherlands seem to be more interested in reading literature in foreign languages than in Dutch. “Sales of books in other languages have increased by almost 50 percent since 2017,” Eveline Aendekerk, director of an organisation to promote Dutch literature, is quoted as saying.

To Mia You, defending the Dutch language from the "threat" posed by English and other languages is “an impossible position to have in this globalised age in which people have access to media in so many different ways.” She notes that most of us often come across other languages daily, without even realising it. “The other day, I was walking through the [shopping mall] Hoog Catharijne and I heard some KPop, for example. So, it’s strange to keep literature as this sort of sacred ground where only one language can exist.” 

The idea of Dutch literature being written exclusively in Dutch becomes even more absurd to her when she considers the fact that other languages and dialects are spoken in the country, such as Frisian and Limburgish. “Not to mention the languages that have huge communities here because of Dutch colonial history, like Papiamento.”

Opportunity
In You’s view, instead of perceiving the use of other languages as a threat, we would do better to see it as an opportunity to explore our creativity. “We should embrace the fact that we have a multilingual community. Be creative. Don’t hold on to this rigid idea of ‘what we’ve always done in the Netherlands’. Instead, think about how we can do something really unique and new.” She doesn’t believe in drawing boundaries between different languages, literary histories and cultures, but rather in finding spaces where they can come together and strengthen each other. “Poetry is a great laboratory for that,” she says. 

You’s point of view reflects her life trajectory. Born in South Korea, she moved to the United States at the age of three and then to the Netherlands eight years ago, when her partner took a job in Amsterdam. At this point, she was almost finishing her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, so she quickly got a teaching position at UU. “That is the immigrant or multicultural person’s experience. You have a lot of found languages and you have to make sense of it all somehow. You have to carve a little space for yourself.”

For an example of how poetry can be a laboratory to carve a unique space in between, look no further than Proverb, the poem she wrote for Poezie Week (Poetry Week) 2022. Not only does it mix English and Dutch, but it also contains nods to Dutch and Flemish literature such as the use of a double-ended acrostic (when both the first and the last letters of each line spell out a word or a message), a form notably used by the Flemish poet Anthonis de Roovere in the 15th century. Anyone who lives in Utrecht should recognise what the double acrostic spells: the sentences “Burn the Village” and “Feel the Warmth” are in a neon sign in the city centre, near Hoog Catharijne.


 

Proverb

bright star, spin faster, spin higher, spin all the splendor of

us as revolutionary crisis, bright star, we’re here

regardless of the future, rouse radical ambiance

not violence, the future is a filter that flatters all

 

thus is fake, we awake forever in a sweet unrest

how faithfully we inventory all the hours, though

even the seas and seasons have lost track of all measure

 

vaster facilities for storage, less held knowledge, how

industrious the laws that see matter as pro forma

let it go, bright star, this blade, pulse, breath has no other

lesson, you’ll burn me from within, just as I’ve done with them

mind is a mine, mine, hem roeckt niet wiens huys dat brant

goes old wisdom, als hi hem by de colen wermen mach

endless is the chill of not yet, not near, enough –


 

The work was commissioned by Unesco’s Utrecht City of Literature, which proposed the theme "nature". You was moved by the environmental issues she saw in the news, namely the gas drilling issue in Groningen and the debate about whether the Netherlands should have large-scale data centres for companies like Facebook. But inspiration really hit her when she saw the neon sign. “Burn the Village/Feel the Warmth originally comes from an African proverb that goes: ‘if a child grows up not feeling loved, they’ll burn the village just to feel the warmth’. This is the way we’ve been treating the Earth. We are burning the village, literally, to get an instant sense of warmth that is not sustainable in the end.”

You also found inspiration in the way the neon sign is laid out, with the two sentences back to back to each other, so one can only see one part of the proverb at a time. “I thought it would be interesting to have that as the beginning and the end lines of poetry. So, the two phrases would be back to back to each other in the poem as well.” 

“There is a Dutch proverb that is quite similar too and I quote it in the poem. But there are references to Keats and other phrases I’ve picked up from newspapers. A lot of it is found language that I tried to make sense of in some ways.” The result? Poetry that reflects her position as a person with many intersecting cultures. 

Proverb was even included in an anthology of Dutch poetry produced since 1945. But You is not stopping there. She is currently working on a poetry collection titled Festival, which is going to be published in Dutch and English. “A huge theme in Festival is my inburgering (naturalisation) process. So, a lot of aspects of Dutch culture and phrases make their way into these poems.”

You stresses that even if one doesn’t write poems the same way she does, they are still being influenced by a myriad of cultures and languages. “Even if a literary work appears to be monolingual and representative of a single national culture, other languages inevitably have made their way into that. Even English is not just English, it has been shaped by Germanic and Romance languages and it constantly evolves and shifts. That is true for the Dutch language as well. Besides, the idea of a single national culture is quite a recent phenomenon. Nations came to the fore just a couple of centuries ago.” 

All our different Englishes
You’s current research focuses on the use of English in poetry in a world where three-fourths of English speakers are not native. “On a massive scale, English is being reshaped and redefined by those who are not necessarily in the US or the UK, and who oftentimes don’t have a clear geopolitical relationship with those places, either.” So, how do we communicate with all our Englishes? 

Again, poetry looks like the perfect laboratory for her. “We already know that language is going to be messed up. It is going to be weird and not entirely straightforward. It really offers us a space to think about how we can make language fit into what we want to communicate with somebody else. And that somebody else can be here, in the US, in South Korea, Peru, you name it.” 

She hopes that UU can be a “free, experimental place” where students and scholars can think about the uses of language and be creative together. “Most students who take a creative writing course with me write their assignments in English, which is their second language. It’s nice when they bring elements from their first languages as well. That includes Dutch.” 

Tags: literature

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