REVIEW: “Mother Tongues” by S. Qiouyi Lu

Review of S. Qiouyi Lu, “Mother Tongues”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 147-153 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

“I bet she bought her Mandarin…”

What if you could buy and sell languages? Excise or implant the knowledge into your brain? Go in for day surgery and wake up fluent in a new language – lifted straight from a native speaker?

Jiawen Liu wants to sell her second language, English, to pay for her daughter’s education at Stanford. But when her English is assessed as less than top quality and she is unable to afford the necessary accent-reduction courses to improve the value of it she has to consider other, more drastic, options.

A beautiful and thought-provoking piece and a highlight of this issue. Lu’s piece does a beautiful job of depicting the bilingual experience and exploring the connection between languages and our sense of self.

There’s a lot going on in this quite short piece. There’s commentary on migrant experiences, assimilation, and how these differ between generations. Consideration of the large and small interactions and use of different languages to get through a day, including code switching.

There’s sly commentary here, too, about authenticity, appropriation and exploitation of minority groups. Is it ok to steal someone else’s authentic voice and use it yourself? Is your learned integration ever going to be as acceptable as everyone else’s and will it forever be worth less? And is something really a choice when other options are not realistically available to you? And is it worth giving up your own voice so that someone else can keep and train theirs?

Lu’s prose on the whole here is tight and lovely. They set up the characters fast and the interactions pack emotional wallops along the way. Their inclusion of multilingual text and other representative prose elements in particular do an excellent job showing the confusion and disorientation of not having the right words to hand – quite literally showing rather than telling the reader the experience.