How to Be Without Language

It’s been over a year since I’ve blogged and so much has happened since then. I recently decided to participate in the #52essays2017 personal essay challenge started by Vanessa Mártir. I’ll be drafting one personal essay per week, so by the end of it all I’ll have 52. Emphasis on the drafting part, lol. This is gonna be quite the ride but what’s life without jumping? I imagine I will post some of them here publicly and keep others essays private. In the first one, I grapple with language and identity:

How To Be Without Language

A 5th grade classmate asks your friend if she’s Haitian as you all catch your breaths after a long game of tag. She shakes her head no as if to break free from someone’s hands. Remember how much better the language sounded in her mouth than yours when you heard her speak to her grandmother last week. Blurt out “she’s Haitian just like me!” Watch her eyes become headlights. Ask yourself why she doesn’t want to be seen.


It’s Thursday evening and your mother is still wearing her nursing uniform and tired eyes. She picks up the phone and it’s your aunt. Quietly shut your bedroom door and bury yourself in books and purple sheets on your bed. Pray that she forgets you’re here. Moments later she yells for you to come speak to your aunt. Tell her you’re going to bathroom so you’re busy. When you’re done pretending, she calls you over again. Listen to the sigh of your bare feet against the cold floor. Grab the phone and utter the same phrases you used last time you spoke to her. Be sure to use English in the place of words your tongue doesn’t know how to carry. Wonder if she can hear the broken bone in your voice.


In the airport chair, slide back and forth in the pink ruffle dress Ma bought for you. Glance over at a white family nearby. Forget to move when you hear them speaking Kreyòl as if it was the first language they knew. Gather yourself. Whisper in Ma’s ear, “how do those white people know how to speak Kreyòl? There’s white Haitians in Haiti?” She laughs and nods. Look down at your hands. Ask yourself if they’re more Haitian than you.


It’s a little over two years since you graduated college and you’re at 4th of July cookout in Harlem. Notice the red, white and blue everywhere. Take another sip of the Heineken as the flag whips in the wind, staring you in the face. A well-dressed couple sits near you. When their accents fall on your ears ask them where they are from. The man smiles and says Haiti. Tell them you’re Haitian, too. He looks at you without trying to hide the doubt in his eyes. “Were you born in Haiti?” Pause and tell him no. Watch him smirk. “You’re not really Haitian then. You’re American.” Your throat is a ruptured bloodline.


Timidly walk toward your grandmother. After a long bus ride through Haiti’s roads and mountains we are finally here. Greet her with “Bonjou.” Clutch a handful of pleats on the right side of your skirt. Consider what you’ll say next as she collects you into her river-loved arms and laughs. Remember home. “Koman ou ye, pitit fi mwen?” Smile and stumble, “mwen byen.” Before you can ask her how she’s doing, you’re twirling through the wind as the ground grows beneath you.


Lay in bed and think of how it’s been 9 years since you were in Haiti. Consider ways to hold on to what’s left in your chest. Sign up for a beginner Kreyòl language class because it isn’t much money and you’re hungry. When the books arrive in the mail, accept that you don’t need the class after all. Cancel your registration and order an intermediate learner’s book instead. Find Carimi on your playlist. Press play. Move your body into the memory of what you saw in the video. Settle into your relief as you translate most of the words in your mind. Think of the Nigerian you met who’s been dancing kompa for years and how he laughed at your unknowing.


Sit in the Baptist congregation with your friend. When church is over, she introduces you to a man whose face is a gift you want to touch. A few minutes into the conversation he asks if you know how to speak Kreyòl. Remember what you practiced. Pretend you’re looking in the mirror and let the words roll into the air. Say it with your hands until he believes you.

HouseOfNadia Written by:


  1. Jenifer
    January 10

    Thank you so much for sharing. I feel the depth of your words and the living dance of language and identity. Beautifully written.

  2. Rosa
    January 17

    Really enjoyed this…you did a great job of second person writing its not easy and you did it with grace..language is a complicated thing I started writing one time about being bilingual and ended up free writing ten much to be said about it….your writing brought to light the microagressions one has to deal with when it comes to language barriers or expectations…keep writing!😊

    • January 17

      Thank you, Rosa! There really is so much to be said about language. I plan on going back to this piece to edit and expand. My week 2 essay for #52essays2017 is a bit late but it’s coming. 🙂

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