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Sunday, September 4, 2016

New Worlds, New Words

Not long ago I was describing the volume of my reading since stopping full time work to an old friend. He asked me - "What's that doing for you?"  Although taken aback by his provocative question I don't recall exactly how I responded at the time. How would you answer his question? But shortly after having that conversation, Little Bee provided me with a partial answer.

"I do not know if you have a word for this kind of singing".

The eponymous narrator of Chris Cleave's 2008 novel "Little Bee" is a refugee from Nigeria. In the sentence above she is trying to describe the sound of a woman singing. The singing woman that Little Bee hears is trying to console a mother who lost her daughter during an escape from the chaos that ensued in Nigeria after huge oil reserves were discovered by the multi-national oil companies. Though Little Bee has a word for what she heard in her native language (Ibo), she cannot find a parallel word in English.

I first read "Little Bee" near its release and, as is my habit, collected sentences that shimmered and sharp insights. My friend's provocative question happened to closely precede a recent re-reading of sentences from several books I've read over the last ten years, all having to do with unfamiliar cultures. Suddenly that sentence above jumped out at me. Reading introduces me to worlds and words I might not have otherwise encountered. And to paraphrase Little Bee, I do not know if there is a word for this kind of magic. What would you call it?

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