Different ways of speech communication is one of my earliest memories. The fact that, at home, my mother and grandmother speak one way, and friends, neighbours and people in the street another. Then there’s the way my mother speaks to my grandmother when she doesn’t want me to understand what she’s saying. The third way. Russian at home, Italian outside, Farsi for secrets I long to know. I am at the stage in my young life when I have a notion of existing but not living. My body still feels like a chunky box that’s the wrong shape for me. Too bulky, too slow, too clumsy, too heavy. Like a container in which I am trapped and which prevents the lithe, fast, agile, sprite-like me from moving as easily as I feel entitled to by right.
On top of this hindrance to the full expression of my self, there is the disobedience of my tongue. I cannot roll my “r”s. This is just another way my body is opposing me.
My mother looks sternly. You cannot speak Russian or Italian with a weak “r”. Her daughter will learn to rattle “r”s as hard as engines, as uncompromising as machine guns. “You’ll practise this Russian tongue-twister,” she instructs.
На горе Арарат
Ростëт крупный виноград
On Mount Ararat
Grow large grapes
Where’s Mount Ararat? Why are the grapes there large?
While my mother is at work, during the day, my grandmother prompts me gently. When my mother comes back home, the evening, it’s boot camp training mode. I know you’re sleepy. Say it just once again and you can go to bed. Come on. One more time. Rrrrr.
I hate Mount Ararat. There are probably big spiders and nasty people living there. And I hate grapes.
I finally manage to produce a guttural “r”. “Good,” my mother pronounces as though she expects no less. “But no one is French in our family. We need a strong, Russian and Italian RRR.”
I am caught between wanting them to leave me alone and the conviction that the goal is non-negotiable. It’s as though my life is impossible until it is achieved. I dread uttering words that contain “r”s.
Then, one day, it just happens as though it were the most natural thing in the world. R r r. My mother is relieved. The uneven edge of my speech has been sanded down.