This month's story at GigaNotoSaurus is the longest of the year to date (though it being March that's not saying too much) and tackles the complex nature of language. It is nice to read more longer stories, especially ones that really delve into the world building as this one does, providing a vivid picture of a breathing world. It's one of the reasons that GigaNotoSaurus is such a treat to check out, because these are world where the reader can linger a bit, with this single story enough to chew on for an entire month. So let's get to that review!
"Polyglossia" by Tamara Vardomskaya (14,356 words)
This is a story about language. The language of place and person and the language of music and the language of food and identity. It looks at people from very different situations, all brought together by language. A man who has lost the language of his mother. A woman who studies languages but cares little for the heritage of them. A different woman for whom language is both a tool and a heritage. A boy who absorbs languages like a sponge, who sees each new language like a new city, full of adventures and secrets. There's so much going on with this story and so much to see and enjoy, a world with layers of history and conflict that all come to a head here, in this story about a song. I love the character work here, the way each person relates differently both to their native languages and to those they learn or want to learn. The way that class impacts language and the way that resistance shapes itself around linguistically. The story begins with a loss, the death of the last native speaker of a minority group oppressed after an invasion long, long ago. There is imperialism here and class dynamics that flow naturally from the circumstances and create an engaging plot and immersive world.
Stories like this make me wish I both knew more languages and was the least bit musical. Because the story shows how much identity can reside in language, how some things don't translate and that, in some ways, the more languages you know the more ways you can think. The characters are constantly finding themselves thinking in different languages, not stuck in one mode or mindset but able to move from one to the other depending on what is appropriate. And, of course, language is also a tool of oppression, because erasing a non-dominant language makes speech, accents, certain phrases, markers for class and by extension barriers to keep people down. The story does an amazing job of showing this in ways subtle and overt. Through police action and through the silences that linger just a little too long. It shows how language can keep people apart, but also how it can bind people. How, especially where a language is not the dominant language, experiencing it spoken, experiencing a moment where the situation is flipped so that the non-dominant language, well, ascends for a moment, is incredibly powerful. And incredibly subversive.
And in the end I think that the story just works because it does such an elegant and nuanced job building its world. It is a long story but it doesn't really feel like it because it switches between characters, making music and language and adding in politics and generational tensions, immigration, and resistance. Plus the cast is meticulously balanced and great. They all come from different points in their lives and places and backgrounds. Most of them do not share a native tongue, and yet they end the story they're all speaking the same language, united in purpose and drive. It's an affirming, kinetic experience, about reaching out across the barriers that language can create to find common meaning. An excellent story!