A flint holds fire: Vidyan Ravinthiran on growing up with a speech impediment

My parents, told already by their GP I was deaf in one ear and developmentally delayed (shown a cartoon horse in a field, I shouted ‘cow!’), reacted sceptically when it was suggested, too, that I had a speech impediment. For them it was an innocent ‘lisp’ such as my uncle had growing up, and one of my cousins as well. Back in Sri Lanka, so my mother says, these things weren’t problems – children grew out of them sooner rather than later.

The impediment, however, remained. During my nursery years it consolidated: I couldn’t pronounce ‘r’ sounds. ‘Yainbow’, I’d say, instead of ‘rainbow’; and the ability of some to roll their Rs still strikes me, thirty years later, as supernatural. So my parents sent me to speech classes. Except this decision wasn’t innocent. My sister, ten years older, was already being trained in elocution. My parents, Sri Lankan Tamils, were – if you like – aspirational immigrants. But aspiration and fear go hand in hand: one fantasises about placing oneself through excellence forever out of harm’s way. By eradicating from their children’s voices any hint of a South Asian accent (for the same reason, they never taught us Tamil) my parents wished to protect us.

Many immigrants have this idea, but there’s also something, in this case, peculiarly Tamilian about it. In 1983, during the rioting of ‘Black July’, Tamil houses and business were looted and destroyed, and many were killed. While the police were complicit, providing the mob with Tamil names and addresses, another method was to seize men off the street and smell which oil they used in their hair. By shibboleths are minorities identified and persecuted. In the Bible, the Ephraimites, who can’t pronounce that word – ‘sibboleth’, they say, with, I imagine, the compensatory fortissimo, the egregious vehemence, with which I cried ‘yainbow!’ – are killed for it. Seamus Heaney alludes to this in ‘Broagh’:

its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees 
and rhubarb-blades

ended almost suddenly, 
like that last 
gh the strangers found 
hard to manage.

In this case, pronouncing ‘Broagh’ properly means you belong somewhere (in Ulster) the powers that be (those British strangers) can’t wholly dominate. They’ll find the natives ‘hard to manage’.

Heaney returns, in his criticism as well as his poetry, to the idea of linguistic and poetic sound as the source of confidence in the world. Our son Frank, nine months old as I write this, is still in that moment Sylvia Plath describes of a baby in ‘Morning Song’: ‘you try / Your handful of notes; / The clear vowels rise like balloons.’ Vowels come to a baby from the off, but Frank’s now working on consonants – ‘ruh, ruh, ruh!’ he cries, returning me to my childhood travails. Wrestling with that phoneme, I came to a type of primordial distrust in the world, matching not only my physical clumsiness – the feeling that objects wouldn’t behave in my hands but spill, break, ooze into nooks and crannies and hide there – but also the overmastering sensation that my parents didn’t know England’s rules and as a result couldn’t shield me from embarrassment. All of this was compressed and compacted into my failure to make myself understood.

I’ve published a poem about this called ‘As a child’, containing the word ‘mirror’, a special horror to me (so is the word ‘horror’). That double ‘r’ is like quicksand. I step into the middle of the word and can’t get free. My mother, leaving me to my first speech lesson, returned to find me sat or stood before a gilt-edged mirror, crying inconsolably as I struggled to pronounce ‘r’ sounds over and over again, under the gaze not only of my teacher but also my own watchful eyes, trained on my reflection to identify gestural errors of my lips and tongue. That’s a long sentence I’ve just written, a way, I think, of replacing this defeat with victory. Vladimir Nabokov, that wonderful prose-stylist, couldn’t speak English as he could Russian. So he asked for his interviews to feature typed questions and typed responses. He replaced speech with writing. This means that when you read one of his magisterially alliterative sentences, you’re really reading stammers marvellously transposed: a defect, a displacement, refashioning itself as virtuosity.

My shocked mother never took me back to that teacher. I studied under Mrs Jowett instead, who was soft-spoken and kindly, though in the habit of comparing me unfavourably with my sister, whose gifts for speech and drama were phenomenal. She once reduced an audience to tears with her performance of Wilde’s Salome:

Ah, Jokanaan, thou wert the man that I loved alone among men. All other men were hateful to me. But thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set upon feet of silver. It was a garden full of doves and lilies of silver. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body.

There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. I wasn’t made for such performances; as well as the impediment, there was, Mrs Jowett said, my mild asthma, causing me to run out of breath part way through a sentence or a verse-line. She used to mark with a little pencilled ‘p’ the moments in a text where I should pause either for breath or for emphasis. Years later, in one of my first tutorials at Oxford, Tom Paulin tried to convince us (a group of sceptical eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds) that the poetry of Christina Rossetti had in it pauses unannounced either by line divisions or punctuation – moments, he said, of feminist strength:

An opal holds a fiery spark; 
but a flint holds fire.

My emphasis; but, really, the italics aren’t mine: Rossetti shapes the voice-contour to linger on ‘flint’. Gerald Manley Hopkins, who admired her – a similar idea arrives, as we’ll see, in his great sonnet, ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’ – used to add stress marks to poems, to convince the reader to read it a particular way, like a musical score. I love Hopkins, but this is controlling. Rossetti’s form of persuasion, her encoding of a voice within the lines, is subtler. I realised I knew what Tom was talking about, seeing in my mind that pencilled ‘p’, just where he, and before him Mrs Jowett, said it would be. That was the day I became a literary critic.

But I mention control, linked to power, and to speech. When I was a teenager doing my GCSEs, I frequently bunked off school and would lie on my bed instead, facing the wall, refusing to speak. My parents didn’t know why I’d shut down. I’d faced racism at school: a geography teacher once told another student not to sit next to me, lest the mud I’d clearly fallen in, flat on my face, transfer onto his uniform. But I don’t think this was the reason. I suspect it was a test regarding the powers of speech and silence; also, a testing of the conditionality (I feared) of my parents’ love. That I excelled at school was so often uppermost in their minds. My brilliance was supposed to continue the Tamil mission – onward and upward, transforming into success not only their pain but the wasted, in some cases destroyed, lives of an entire community still existing as second-class citizens in the country my parents left behind; always, they said, ‘to make sure our children had the best education’. If I dropped the ball, or put it down and refused to play the game, would I still be special to them?

My parents passed this test, and others. Tamils don’t fail tests. At one point in Sri Lanka, they faced the opposite of affirmative action: as a minority unfairly (it was thought) well represented in higher education and white-collar employment, their children were tasked to score more highly in examinations than others if they wished for the same opportunities. Whenever I told my parents that I hated my speech and drama lessons and wanted to stop, they said, ‘But what about your akka form for university? You have to put something on it!’

‘Akka’ in Tamil means ‘sister’ – I’d refer to my sister as ‘Vani-akka’, and a pillow-cover I half-inched from her and clung to as an infant was referred to as ‘Akka pillow’ (white, soft, with greyly chewed corners I was always stuffing in my mouth or tweaking between finger and thumb). So while I never questioned what this ‘akka form’ was, I associated it blurrily with my brilliant sister who was now at Oxford studying Human Sciences. Only when applying to university myself, years later – filling out my UCAS form – did the lightbulb switch on over my head. Until 1993, UCAS was the UCCA. That’s what my mother was trying to say all along. UCCA form.

The personal statement on my UCAS form didn’t mention my limited accomplishments at Horsforth Drama Festival. It was filled – cringeworthy to remember; my buttocks clench, literally, as I write this – with high- minded talk of ‘Art’, with a capital ‘A’. This was because my recovery from silence, my return to school and exams, was made possible by Oscar Wilde, and aestheticism was in my bloodstream – a last-ditch infusion.

There was nothing in the world so white as thy body.

I could not recite those lines as my sister could, but there were other ways I could emulate Wilde, taking this to absurd extremes. In an essay for school I wrote that, reading a book, ‘we are but violins which the work of Art must play.’ He wore a green carnation in his buttonhole; buying yellow ones from Asda, I’d felt-tip them green.

I’d read somewhere – in Richard Ellmann’s biography? – that Wilde could speak, off the cuff, in iambic pentameter. This seemed like magic to me, a way of constructing an armour of elegance no humiliation could pierce. I didn’t make the connection with my impediment, my speech- lessons, or the fact that Wilde, once an ungainly Irish child, flourished in the teeth of his enemies by becoming more English than the English. Nor did I recognise the conditions under which I’d first discovered his novel: that force of Tamil aspiration causing my father to stock our house with literary classics neither he nor my mother had read. The book I returned to was The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of all the characters in it I wanted desperately to be Wilde’s stand- in, Lord Henry Wotton:

‘I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.’

What fascinates me, returning to this passage after so many years – having searched an online text for ‘your days are your sonnets’, the unforgotten phrase on which so much of my life, my writing, came to depend – is how the opposition it maps between art and life also takes us to praise, encouragement, safety, and the idea that the paramount experiences of our lives are beyond our control. Live learnedly, exquisitely, so when you ruminate or your mind carries you haplessly beyond the present moment, it won’t be into fantasies of harm, or a litany of remembered humiliations, but towards, instead, a world of sumptuous perceptions. Wotton urges Dorian on, just as my parents did to me and continue to, insisting with immigrant perfervidness that I’m special and unique: a pressure I now sense them quite innocently beginning to exert on my son Frank, of whom my father likes to say that ‘he will change the way people live.’ I come up with jokes to defuse this: ‘Well, that’s true of Donald Trump, too.’

‘Each mortal thing does one thing and the same,’ wrote Hopkins, ‘Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.’ This is in that poem beginning with kingfishers and dragonflies, but he could be talking about Pokémon. Sometimes I feel like a large soft brown Pokémon waddling from place to place, squawking my peculiar name – it rhymes not satisfactorily but chewily, not euphoniously but sing-songily. The rhyme emerges as a failed half-way assertiveness: I begin to assert myself (my names support each other sonically, they announce me) then break off, apologising either implicitly or explicitly for these weird words likely to wrongfoot you. Asked my name, I prevaricate for two reasons: on the one hand, I think whoever’s listening won’t get it right first time, for ethnic reasons; but there’s also the feeling I’ll fudge it myself, because of those ‘r’ sounds. I learned only at my sister’s wedding that ‘Vidyan’ is supposed to be pronounced ‘Vi-thee- un’, a change I haven’t made, for it would entail a reckoning with the fact that until the age of 16 it wasn’t only everyone else, but me too, getting my name wrong.

Even writing this out I don’t feel particularly empowered – more as if I’m growing opaquer. I feel tired, returning to these subjects. I could mention here the stick that poets of colour get for being, supposedly, exploiters of their own traumas. Ocean Vuong writes of such an encounter in a recent issue of Poetry:

I made it out by the skin of my griefs.

I used to be a fag now I’m lit. Ha.

Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young
woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to
write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause.] I got nothing. [Laughter,
glasses clinking.]

But this is discussed elsewhere (including, by me) so let’s remain with the broader idea of being given lemons, making lemonade. It’s true that minorities do this in their daily lives, because they have to. (How many grievances can you metabolise? Reworked, could they slot into your armamentarium?) If my speech impediment, and the classes seeking to correct it, have guided my feeling for poetry, it has also fascinated me with the idea that our creativity comes of our pain and somehow redeems it. I’ve a hunger to pursue this in the most pigheaded and no doubt reductive way into the gadgetry of poems. So, if Keats wrote of Milton that his disability shaped his imagination (‘it can scarcely be conceived how Milton’s blindness might here aid the magnitude of his conceptions as a bat in a large gothic vault’), I like to think about Alexander Pope’s physical disadvantages being outfaced by the crystalline rigour of his couplets. Returning to speech impediments, the late, great Ciaran Carson seems to me, like Nabokov, a stylist whose experiments on the page issue from a perspectived self-consciousness to do with speech.

Carson had a bad stutter that disappeared when he played the flute or sang, an impediment that his verse also caused – I’m arguing – to disappear or at least to morph from blockade into impulsive energy. Growing up with a speech-impediment, your first move is to avoid words which function as obstacles, replacing them with others. This means you’re already a writer, an editor, standing at one remove from your sentences and considering how they might be tweaked. It isn’t possible for you to open your mouth before engaging your brain. But something else that comes of this is a concern with that moment when an obstacle reshapes into a boundary: in Carson’s case, the boundary of the line-ending. His stylistic breakthrough, 1987’s The Irish for No, came up with a garrulous, pretend- slovenly, contrapurposive long line, which could include, no doubt, all sorts of atrocity-details, and digress essayistically, but also represents to me the stutterer’s dream, of overtaking the obstacle once and for all, launching oneself down a torrent of talk whose foaming energy, once begun, is invulnerable to cessation. Absorbed into an all-encompassing sensorium, individual sounds are reconceived as enabling, not disabling, like the ‘marble air’ through which Milton’s Satan flies at will, with the lurch and daring of the blind poet composing vocally to his amanuenses, finding his way in the dark:

I wandered homesick-lonely through that Saturday of silent Tallinn 
When a carillon impinged a thousand raining quavers on my ear, tumbling

Dimly from immeasurable heights into imaginary brazen gong-space, trembling
Dimpled in their puddled, rain-drop halo-pools, concentrically assembling.

                      ‘Eesti’, from Opera Et Cetera (1996)

In Carson’s poems, internalised political terrors (and real- world checkpoints) are envisioned as a return of the repressed: ‘I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering. // […] Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated.’ The long line breaks apart into short sentences: the gasping units of meaning, of the stutterer; elsewhere, Carson goes the other way, writing very short lines, which fetishise the experience of apocopation, of entrapment within one’s own voice, and do with it something gruellingly innovative. In Dubliners, James Joyce writes of hearing ‘the rain impinge upon the earth’. Describing the sound of bells as ‘rain-drop halo-pools’, a carillon which ‘impinged a thousand raining quavers on my ear’, Carson extends this acoustic into the hypersensitised universe of the stutterer. In that universe, speech is always in danger of fraying into mere sounds that ‘impinge’ violently, even on the speaker (the Sri Lankan-Canadian poet Rienzi Crusz writes, instead, of ‘insurgent rain’) as he strives to master a force that, on the brink of forming words, becomes perversely babelic, askance, resistant (as if it were possible to stub one’s tongue instead of one’s toe).

Vidyan Ravinthiran was born in Leeds to Sri Lankan Tamils, and now teaches at Harvard. He’s the author of two books of poetry and a study of Elizabeth Bishop.