This is my final draft of the first assignment in the writing seminar (FREN/CPLT 359) that inspired this blog. It looks very different from its first iteration. For more of my work in FREN/CPLT 359, feel free to browse that tag, or click here for instant access.
“Tradiksyon” means “Translation” in Haitian Creole.
“My mom is a great translator.”
As a child, I’d often say this to my friends who asked me how I managed to navigate trips to Haiti and long phone calls with relatives that I sometimes hardly remembered and most times couldn’t understand. Growing up as a child born to parents from different nations was an interesting experience. Having lived in Jamaica all my life, I found that claiming my Haitian heritage could be a point of pride, but could also be largely unsettling, as I began to wonder whether I had the right to claim it. I have visited Haiti very few times, and each time I have felt a distinct separation, like a long pause, between myself and my Haitian heritage. The disconnection has not been helped by the fact that my first few years learning to turn my rudimentary French into Haitian Creole (Kreyol) were far from smooth sailing. Throughout my childhood, whenever my feet finally did touch Haitian soil, I would squander the opportunity to connect with my culture by hiding within the pleats of my mother’s skirt. I was afraid that my relatives would laugh at my hesitant speech…and they did. All of a sudden, I felt that the simple French I spoke freely with my mother no longer sufficed, and the chuckles of aunts, uncles, and cousins only highlighted my scant vocabulary and poor grammar. I resorted to whispering into my mother’s ear and hearing my words flow out in the beautiful legato of her voice, her patient translation quieting the echoing laughs of my family. I could not understand what was so funny about my incompetence. Having always had a relatively firm grasp on the English language, I came to see the seemingly-negative reaction to my inadequacy as something uniquely Haitian. I never laughed at my cousins when they would trip over their tenses or stumble across superlatives, and so that laughter was the Haitian legacy imprinted on my mind. To my self-conscious ears, the laughter sounded hurtful. Somehow, my mother’s laugh never felt malicious.
My mom was a great translator.
The last time I landed on Haitian soil was to attend the memorial service for my mother. I remembered how she would translate my weary eyes as “Momma, I’ve heard enough Kreyol today. I’m ready to go,” and how my jittery demeanor would say to her, “Momma, I’m itching to ask you what so and so meant by what she just said”. She was no longer there. There was no one left to transpose my shyness into words that others could understand. However, as my tired eyes became teary, a memory emerged within me. It was the memory of my mother’s familiar Haitian laugh blending beautifully with the formerly unfamiliar strains of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Slowly, my uneasiness began to fall away. I started to grasp the phrases of Haitian Creole that now came more naturally to my ears. I tested out a note here and there, slowly creating my own melody. I sang songs of my mother and the legacy she left. I connected with my family through our shared love of a remarkable woman. When I began to listen correctly, Haitian culture no longer sounded like the clashing, unharmonious, muddled mess that had kept emerging as I was searching for my connection to this place that I wanted so badly to know. I learned that Haitians share a joy that allows them to laugh at themselves just as much as they had laughed, lovingly, at me.
My mom is still a great translator. She is so great, in fact, that I am now able to be a conduit that translates her love, joy, and Haitian laughs to all those I encounter. She taught me to embrace the connection that I was once afraid to claim. I realized, finally, that the chorus of laughter sounded so unfamiliar because it was missing a key voice: mine.