Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sonali Thakkar reviews Not Like a Native Speaker

Rey Chow. Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 192 pp.

Review by Sonali Thakkar

Despite its title, Rey Chow’s Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience is to my mind best understood as an extended reflection, over a series of loosely connected essays, on the relationship between language, mourning, and their technological mediation.

The book’s highlight is its final chapter, a moving and remarkably rich essay about Chow’s mother’s career as a writer and performer of Cantonese-language radio plays for a British broadcasting company in 1950s–1970s Hong Kong. Her mother’s practice of writing her scripts in Cantonese—an innovation on the longstanding practice of drafting scripts in standard Chinese, to be translated by the actors into colloquial Cantonese speech during performance—is for Chow an exemplary instance of the complex status of the native tongue in a Hong Kong under both British colonial rule as well as the cultural influence of mainland China. But the essay’s most evocative aspect is its coupling of Chow’s childhood memories of her mother’s radiophonic voice and its medium-specific disembodiment with the work of mourning that follows her mother’s death. As she sorts through manuscripts marked by her mother’s hand, she writes both of the “longing” she feels for her mother’s presence as well as of her own handiwork in the service of these scripts, when as a child she would occasionally serve as an eager copyist, transcribing her mother’s words onto wax paper with a needle-tipped stylus (p. 115–18). From this image, which evokes Freud’s mystic writing pad, to the maternal voice that emanates from the family radio (pictured on the book’s cover), the essay suggests what Elissa Marder describes as the enduring interception of the supposed naturalness of the maternal function by all manner of mechanical reproduction.[1] Chow accordingly never invokes what might seem the obvious term here: the mother tongue. In fact, that phrase barely occurs in the book, appearing prominently only in an epigraph from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari that declares: “there is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.”

This epigraph, calling for the divestment of a fantasy of the mother tongue, and Chow’s account of her own work of linguistic and maternal mourning, together bracket a series of chapters challenging what Chow deems a pervasive postcolonial tendency towards failed mourning or melancholia. “The postcolonial scene,” Chow writers, is largely “a melancholic scene in which the colonized suffers the loss of her harmonious relation to her own language” (p. 47). Chow’s argument that critical and cultural theory have come to depend too heavily on melancholic figurations of the social and political is well taken. But while her account of melancholia, from Judith Butler to Anne Cheng, underscores its centrality for theorizations of gender and race, her characterization of postcolonial linguistic politics as suffused with such melancholia is never quite substantiated or persuasive to this reader. Indeed, Chow’s formulation of the “xenophone”—both a “foreign-sounding speech/tone” as well as “a creative domain of languaging . . . that draws its sustenance from mimicry and adaptation and bears in its accents the murmur, the passage, of diverse found speeches”—only underscores her indebtedness to a version of postcolonial theory that finds generative potential in loss, dividedness, and dislocation (pp. 59, 11).

Chow’s investment in the creative potential of the xenophonic, together with her commitment to language as prosthesis (recounted here via an extended reading of Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other) allows her to ascribe to the (post)colonized subject an especially intimate knowledge of the way that language always functions “artificially and artifactually” (p. 41). At times, however, the effect is one of seeming to pit a sophisticated, deconstructive postcolonial posture toward language against the melancholic, nativist postcolonial subject. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who writes only in his native Gĩkũkũ, is cast here in the latter role. Even if one grants Chow’s view that Ngũgĩ’s seminal essay, “The Language of African Literature,” is nativist in its sentiments, it does not follow, as Chow suggests, that he represents the dilemma of “the formerly colonized . . . condemned to a vicious circle of melancholic longing” (p. 47). In fact, Ngũgĩ’s posture in that essay is not melancholic but resistant—not “afflicted with grief” for a language and world irrevocably lost but instead emphatic that Gĩkũkũ has remained a living, and changing, language for its many speakers among the peasantry and working class (p. 47).[2] What Chow deems an effort to “restore [an] originary relation” that is “doomed to fail” is, for Ngũgĩ, a political response to neocolonialism (p. 47). In permitting the (post)colonized subject only two recognizable positions—privileged insight into “the truth of the mediated and divisive character of all linguistic communication,” or a melancholic relation to “the open and unhealed wounds of language”—Chow understates the centrality of anti-imperialist struggle, and its experiments with language, to postcolonial thought (pp. 42, 11).

The book’s exploration of Hong Kong’s linguistic and cultural politics alongside a familiar group of Anglophone and Francophone thinkers and objects, not least in the wonderful final essay, is very suggestive, as is the introductory chapter’s reminder that racialization is not just a visual but also a linguistic operation. But the scene of postcolonial languaging, as Chow calls it, may be more diverse and complex than her account allows.

[1] See Elissa Marder, The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction (New York, 2012). 

[2] See Ngũgĩ’ wa Thiong’o, “The Language of African Literature,” Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (New York, 1986), pp. 4–33, esp. 23.