8.06 / June 2013

An Accent Like Grief

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From early on I’ve learned to hear accents like auditory Braille, bumps in language forming landscapes. Whenever my mother speaks in English it’s apparent she is anything but. One linguistic turn of the tongue is enough to identify some of us as other.

For example, say the phrase in a little while or take a right at the lights. Say the word water. What sounds are swept away in mispronunciation, which letters like pits lodged in the throat?

Answer, and I’ll tell you about cartography, where on the map you lie. I’ll tell you if you’re a native speaker.

I’ll tell you if you’re one of us.


Grief deranges the key on every single map.

This is why during times of profound loss we lose ourselves. The stars misalign. We can’t find any treasure. We wander. We scrounge through mud and ash, shovel aside piles of bone. Every X on the map turns out to be a hoax.

Two times in life I’ve been knocked dumb by grief. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and repeated, “you are here, you are here.” Despite the obvious acknowledgement, I was still off course.

The only way through grief is to create a map from scratch, to pencil and shade every landmark in sight. The goal is not to arrive where you started, but to study your new surroundings so well there is comfort in the cracks, ecstasy in the accents.


Listen carefully to the way my mother speaks English, or the way I speak Japanese with a sluggish tongue.

Better yet, listen carefully to the way my mother doesn’t speak English, the way she hides her thick accent behind her native language.

Our accents, like grief, emphasize all the wrong moments.


My father retired from the Navy after twenty one years of service. When I think back to the map of my childhood, his absence is a desert, a harsh and scorched nothing.

Say parch. Say char. Months without him burn away.

Then one day a letter, a keychain, a coin from a country I couldn’t pronounce. These were the things I hid underneath to protect myself from the heat.

I was nine when we moved to America.

Boku wa Nihonjin desu (Translation: I am Japanese.)

Sometimes this is the easiest way to self-identify. Other times I proclaim mixed-race, bi-racial, half or hybrid. A friend of mine uses the term ‘blended.’ When I was younger I had to X the box next to the designation “other.” Now more often than not, I feel “other” suits me well.

On the other hand, there are moments we’re defined by the things we’re not: He’s no athlete. She’s no beauty queen. They’re not from around here.

No matter what language I use, however, I’m reading a map without a key.


When I speak in my mother’s tongue it’s as if I’m writing with the wrong hand.

My oldest daughter, only four, already has a better accent than me. Though she’s never set foot in Japan, linguistically speaking she is more at home there than I am. Culturally speaking, she will probably feel more at home in America than I do.

There is something to be said about inheritance. There is something to be said about being exiled, being unable to pronounce the words that can summon the child we once were.


The immigrant’s story is inherently a tragic one, e.g., my mother left behind everyone and everything she ever knew: her family, her friends, even her very geography.

If I have to explain further, if you are one who says things like “land of opportunity” and “better off,” then I’m afraid you are like an ignorant child who looks at a directory and does not know to panic. Unless you’ve paid attention to the steps you’ve taken, a map is useless. It will not tell you what’s forgotten, what can never be recovered. It will not speak of your history.

YOU ARE HERE, it states in block letters, as if the journey didn’t matter.

Repeat this to yourself like a charm against grief: Nothing is ever lost.


When I was young I’d shut my eyes. I’d do this everywhere my mother brought me: crowded malls, fieldtrips, the produce section of a grocery store. I wanted to be lost. The possibility of going off the map thrilled me. I’d stop moving and close my eyes; my mother walked forward.

Every second I waited in self-imposed blindness was like a whisk to the pit of my stomach. After half a minute I couldn’t bear it; I’d peek. In those brief moments I couldn’t find her, the world was foreign and familiar. Although I never took a step I was no longer where I was.

Then I’d spot a figure removing a white blouse from a clothing rack or inspecting a cluster of grapes. The world again would grow warm like cake.

How indiscernibly things shift from safety to instability and back again. How quickly the language we dreamt in becomes the language we no longer use.


We navigate society through maps, knowledge and ignorance like latitude and longitude. When I was a child I wondered how the directory knew where I was, how it so confidently and accurately declared every time, “You are here.”

Remarkable what children don’t know and all the things they do.

Remarkable how quickly we lose the accents that define us.

You are here – a simple way of stating the most complicated thing: You exist.

I am bilingual for the time being, and forgetting more of the child I was.

Every detail we chronicle in our small and ordinary lives….

We are here, we are here, we are here.

Then someday, all of us, irrevocably not. All of us crossed out, a black X on a map we hope someone knows how to read.

Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro Prize and the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He helps edit and operate A River & Sound Review. He wishes to thank his family, always.
8.06 / June 2013