Speaking with an accent
To speak the language is to belong. Sort of.
The first step in learning to fit into a new community is to learn its customs and most of all, its language. I speak three languages myself: French, English and Spanish, each with an accent.
To Americans, I sound either French or something not quite identifiable. To the French, I sound American. To the Hispanics, I am a curiosity, someone who isn't expected to speak at all.
The truth of the matter is that II am forever sounding foreign.
After thirty-five years in the United States I introduce myself as being from Houston but my French-ness inevitably comes up, at which point I feel that I must perform. To be French is to be sophisticated, entertaining, sensual, to know about wine, bread and cheese and to have the inside scoop on that perfect vacation rental in Provence. There is an acquaintance who insists on talking to me about the French avant-garde ( I don't care for it) and many strangers who think it their duty to practice their high-school French on me. I have learned to be gracious when what I really want is to go on about my business, shift the conversation and move on.
Then there is the perverse hell of being misunderstood and laughed at for pronouncing a French word accurately and then being instructed on how to mis-pronounce the same word the American way. Chandeliers, brassieres, lingerie and routes are banned from my conversations. I avoid croissants like the linguistic plague that they are.
But nothing beats the confusing shame of being mistaken for a foreigner in my birth country. On my last trip to France, a hotel clerk congratulated me on how well I spoke French, with just a hint of an American accent, he said and where had I learned to speak French so well? And there was the episode, years ago, when a museum refused to sell me a ticket at the price reserved for citizens of the European Union because I wasn’t carrying my passport that day and didn’t sound French enough to the cashier in charge. My own family calls me “the American”, which I am, mostly am, but why can't I be French when in France?
So this week's project offers a commentary on the fragmented linguistic persona of the immigrant. I made a series of hats that reflect what it is like to speak several languages, none of them flawlessly.
The OUI/SI/YES series was made by stripping three identical hats of their machine-embroidery designs. The front of each hat was then re-woven by hand with linen threads, each design being made unique by varying the rhythm of weaving to match my perception of the cadence of each of the languages I speak.
In the last step, each hat was embroidered with a version of the word “yes” in English, French and Spanish. The hand-lettering matched the slight imperfection of a spoken accent.
How I speak is who I am: a forever evolving mix of English, French and Spanish. I'll speak whatever comes to my lips. Oui. Sí. Yes.
If you are interested in one to the hats, visit the shop for more detail.