Unruly Agencies. Thinking with an Accent: Toward a New Object, Method, and Practice / Casey Mecija

Photo of Mecija family in their first apartment in Canada. June 1978. Courtesy of Francisco and Emma Mecija.

Pooja Rangan, Akshya Saxena, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, and Pavitra Sundar, eds. Thinking with an Accent: Toward a New Object, Method, and Practice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2023.

My parents migrated from the Philippines to Canada in the mid-1970s. My sisters and I were raised in a small city called Brantford. We were never taught Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in the Philippines, and we were discouraged from trying to mimic its sounds so that our learning of English would not be interrupted. My parents were cautious that if we spoke their language, we might acquire accents that were, to them, explicit markers of difference. In the suburb where we lived for almost two decades, my parents’ accents were intimately knotted into diasporic experience. Accents set in motion a dense terrain of assumptions and inquiry. They can engender discrimination, but they can also support the formation of a cultural community.

The accent, as a site of complex interpellation, is the subject of Thinking with an Accent: Toward a New Object, Method, and Practice. Too often, the universality of accents and their interpretive possibilities are shadowed by identity politics. While accents can point us to “biograph[ies] of migration” (5), the authors in this collection point to the anti-essentialist qualities of accents. The edited volume offers a simple yet provocative proposition that accents are a mode of perception weighted by “elusiveness and misapprehension” (3).

The volume’s conceptual approach of “thinking with an accent” emphasizes the “methodological liberation” (xi) that emerges when an accent becomes more than the sounds that are spoken. Editors Pooja Rangan, Akshya Saxena, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, and Pavitra Sundar “propose thinking with an accent as a mode of accented perception, understood as a practice that is multimodal, multisensorial, and thoroughly mediatized” (11). Accent studies—and its paratextual genealogies, such as language studies, legal studies, and, more currently, the study of artificial intelligence—marshal impressive observations about what accents do socially and politically. Situating accent as object, method, and practice, the book divides the term into three epistemological contexts: expertise, perception, and desire.

The first section explores who gets to claim expertise of accents—and what that expertise means. If accent becomes seamlessly wrapped up in narratives of alterity and loss or sentimentalized as a core characteristic of self and social recognition, how might we, as Rey Chow proposes in this book, miss out on the elasticity of identity and its meanings? In a parallel reading of the Chinese poem “Homecoming” and the famous play Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, Chow argues that accent is typically objectified as linguistic sounds subject to colonial processes of normalization. However, Chow suggests accented subjectivities are far more unruly than the disciplines and disciplining agents that claim accent as their site of expertise. She contemplates what assumptions about accents become upended if they are “differentiated in accordance with the types of knowledge and values they generate and regenerate” (33). The institutional constraints in accent studies and its related disciplines have yet to wholly account for how accents can be skills instrumental in one’s use. Referring to a Latinx “digital accent,” contributor Sara Veronica Hinojos illuminates the political and social uses of linguistic accents within digital communication. Supplementing the multimodal interventions of accents covered in this section within and across economies of race, gender, and ability, Hinojos writes that the multigenerational and multilingual exchanges between Latinx texters “invoke digital everyday tactics of solidarity, place making, and survival” (79).

The second section considers how accents are perceived in a global economy of communication. In her contribution, for instance, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan describes how accents, particularly within the call center economy, enact practices of “convergence and accommodation” (115) that are filtered through Western logics of globality. Srinivasan argues that the capacity for accents to shift and change depending on who is speaking and who is being spoken to offers insights into their relational power. The accented speaker—or in this example, the call center agent, presumably from South and Southeast Asia—is tasked with neutralizing or modifying their accent to accommodate the Western Caller. But what accent is the Western Caller listening for? Srinivasan pushes at the limits of Call Center Literature to consider the Western Caller as intimately bound to perceptive constraints or what Nina Eidsheim describes as “accented listening” (136). Framed in this way, Srinivasan asks: “What if Call Centre Literature exposes the West and the limits of its literacy, the norms it upholds in order to shore up its status, its demands for compliance?” (129). Who is accommodating whom?

As readers, we are urged to examine the epistemological and political itineraries that guide our perception, and this critical challenge is what makes Thinking with an Accent so liberating. At once, we are asked to imagine accents beyond their bodily utterance but not entirely disavow their embodied importance. While accents lay bare the confines of identity politics, the authors in this volume also emphasize the ethical imperatives that emerge with their representation. Lynn Hou and Reznet Moges’s chapter demonstrates the challenges faced by Deaf Scholars of Color to find interpreters who can use their facial expressions, body positions, and ASL (American Sign Language) to represent accented language accurately. They write: “The insufficient number of Interpreters of Color with ethnic epistemologies has resulted in Deaf Scholars of Color not being able to achieve a sense of belonging or to connect with other POC in academic fields” (163). Deaf Scholars of Color contend with mediated representations of themselves and their ideas in primarily hearing spaces. The authors importantly expose the fraught dynamics that emerge when Deaf Scholars from racially and/or linguistically stigmatized backgrounds are assigned interpreters who are so often white.

In the final section, titled “A Desire Called Accent,” the authors leverage accents as substantive modalities of intimacy. In the chapter “Stereo Accent: Reading, Writing, and Xenophilic Attunement,” Akshya Saxena argues that “an accent does not defamiliarize a language but is actually a relation forged in familiarity” (217). In her discussion of how literary accent is shaped by the reader’s embodied relation to a text, she implicates the reader in co-constructing the terms by which accents become intelligible and, thusly, desirable. Accents emerge in the instance that a reader listens to and for them, a process that Saxena provocatively terms as “xenophilic attunement.” Though the exchanges between speaker and listener are riven with power relations, Saxena asks: “What if we probed accent from a place of unknowing, as a desire for familiarity? What might it mean to hear and read accent lovingly? (217).

As a child, the imagined geographies that were summoned by my parents’ earnest blend of English and Tagalog (sometimes referred to as “Taglish”) were, for me, incongruent with the racialized demands of the Canadian nation-state. They were queer sounds that marked the failure of what Homi Bhabha has called “colonial imitation” and fortified the boundaries of my non-belonging. I neatly configured my parents’ accents as a wounded attachment to language and, by extension, to a history that was never mine. Thinking with an Accent instructed me to approach accents with more respect, criticality, and humility. To think with my parents’ accents would be to confront how their creative and nimble linguistic interventions, while shadowed by colonial demands, also exploited the authority and traditions of the English language. As the authors of this volume so poignantly suggest, thinking with the polyphonic possibilities of accents can bring us into intimacy with these often-obscured forms of agency. A guiding promise of this collection lies in its showcase of interdisciplinarity. Nourishing epistemological solidarities emerge in what the authors term “interdisciplinary accent studies.” The authors prompt thinking around how future studies of global Anglophone literature, world literature, comparative literature, sound studies and accent studies are often in conversation. It is our own “accented” reading and writing practices that ultimately silo accent and its disruptive potential.

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