A Voice Without the Words to Speak

Hello Conversation Friends,

We are back with Vermillion conversations for the fall, this time with a guest conversation. The ever-extraordinary Tessa Hulls is leading a discussion about loss of language, with a group of excellent guests. Details are laid out below. You must come; this will be very good.

Before that, however, two brief announcements related to art, science, and technology:

9e2, the project I’ve been working on, is going at full steam. Take a look at http://9e2seattle.com/

The deadline for 4Culture’s Tech-Specific grant is coming up: September 29. Check it out.

And now, without further ado, the main attraction:

A Voice Without the Words to Speak: A Roundtable Discussion on Loss of Language

Co-produced by Tessa Hulls and John Boylan’s Conversation Series

Tuesday, September 27, 7 to 9pm

Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, 1508 11th Ave, Seattle

The Story

Our identities our defined by language: even within the intimacy of our own minds, we need words to shape the timbre of what we think and what we feel. Externally, the languages that we speak place us within larger contexts—of culture, of identity, of belonging. So what happens when we lose access to language? What does it mean when we lack the words to fully frame who we are?

In this participatory roundtable discussion, attendees are invited to share their own perspectives as four invited panelists discuss their personal and professional experiences working with a broad spectrum of language loss.

This event is supported through a City Artist grant through the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and is a part of the larger project Feeding Ghosts: The Life of Sun Yi (more information about this project and its connection to this event is included at the end of this announcement).

The Guests and some questions: 

Gregory Sutterlict, whose name is Tuwalitin, is a linguist who serves as the Director of the Heritage University Language Center in Toppenish, Washington. Founded to revitalize, preserve, and promote endangered languages, the center focuses on Ichishkin (Sahaptin), the language of the Yakama people. How does the personal loss of the ability to speak a language differ from the larger loss of a language system as a whole? How does a culture’s sense of identity shift when its members lose the names and words with which they have defined themselves?

Sharon H. Chang is a scholar, activist, and author whose inaugural book, Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World, was released last year to wide acclaim. Both Sharon and her husband were born to Asian immigrants who did not pass their heritage languages on to their children; now, as parents themselves, Sharon and her husband are striving to raise their son with proficiency in one of his heritage languages. When it comes to the loss of native tongue, why do we so often find ourselves in a Joni Mitchell place of, “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” We are seeing a push within our educational system for more bilingual education, and for children to be introduced to language instruction and immersion at an earlier age: can we take this as a sign of progress, an acknowledgment that we do not need to fully lose something before fighting to regain it?

Rose Hulls is a special education teacher—and the mother of the organizer of this event—who spent her career focusing on language development in young children with language disorders; at the same time, her first-generation American children do not speak her native tongue of Cantonese. What does this say about generational shifts in the value of heritage language, and how does the immigrant experience—both implicitly and explicitly—affect our relationships to cultural belonging and to the languages we geographically leave behind?

Litsa Dremousis is the author of the book “Altitude Sickness,” and has had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis for twenty-five years. The way in which we move through the world is a physical language: if our bodies become impaired—particularly in ways that might not be immediately apparent or easily defined—how does that impact the way in which we physically communicate? If the body has a voice, what happens when this voice is damaged? In the case of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, this compromised vocabulary is twofold; the disorder used to be called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” and this is “now regarded by the Institutes of Medicine as one of the most wildly inaccurate and pejorative misnomers in medical history.” Even now, an agreed-upon vocabulary has yet to fully emerge; we are still shaping and learning the words that we need in order to talk about this illness.

The Guests in Detail

Rose Hulls was born in Shanghai, China, in 1950, right after the Communist takeover. She was smuggled out of China to Hong Kong with her mother in 1958 when the Chinese government issued exit visas for a large number of people to leave the country on account of famine within China. At the age of eight, her mother enrolled her in a British boarding school in Hong Kong. She had not been exposed to the English language prior to that time, but within a year, she was speaking English fluently, along with the Shanghainese dialect that she had grown up with, and the Cantonese dialect (predominant in Hong Kong) that she learned after arriving in Hong Kong. She came to the US for college when she was 19, and after completing a BA in History and French, went on to earn a master’s degree in the Education of Exceptional Children. She worked as a special educator in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1980-2012, specializing in language development for young children with language disorders. In the final decade of her work life, she additionally completed a doctorate in psychology. She has two adult children, and has lived in the SF Bay Area since 1975, and is now retired

Gregory Sutterlict, whose name is Tuwalatin, is Yakama and Chehalis and a father of 3. He is the Director of Heritage University Language Center (HULC), which was created to help revitalize, preserve, and promote endangered languages, focusing on Ichishkin (Sahaptin), the language of the Yakama people. He received his BA at Heritage University, then did his Masters work at University of Washington, and completed all the coursework for a PhD in linguistics at the University of Oregon. He is currently working on his Dissertation. When he wanted to learn his native language it was difficult to get started; then he heard about Ichishkin classes at HU and met Tuxamshish Virginia Beavert, his teacher and elder, and became hooked in language. Tuwalatin made his University language classes available to the community to learn their language for free, and he started the Zillah After-School Language and Culture Club and the Ichishkin-focused toddler class at the Heritage University Early Learning Center, where he helps with teaching material and teaching strategies.

Litsa Dremousis is the author of “Altitude Sickness” (Future Tense Books), which Seattle Metropolitan Magazine named one of the all-time “20 Books Every Seattleite Must Read.” Her essay “After the Fire” was selected as one of the “Most Notable Essays 2011” by Best American Essays, she’s a Contributing Editor at The Weeklings, and The Seattle Weekly named her one of “50 Women Who Rock Seattle.” She is a Washington Post contributor and her work has appeared in myriad publications, including Esquire and New York Magazine. @LitsaDremousis, litsadremousis.com.

She has had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a degenerative neuro-immuno illness, for 25 years. The World Health Organization estimates 17 million people worldwide have ME, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates one million Americans have ME. It used to be called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” now regarded by the Institutes of Medicine as one of the most wildly inaccurate and pejorative misnomers in medical history. What was once dismissed as “yuppie flu” is now known to be degenerative, incurable, and potentially fatal. She walks with crutches and has written each word of her career while lying down.

Sharon H. Chang has worked with young children and families for over a decade as a teacher, administrator, advocate and parent educator. She is currently an award-winning author, scholar and activist who focuses on racism, social justice and the Asian American diaspora with a feminist lens. Her inaugural book Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World was released in 2015 to rave reviews. Her pieces have additionally appeared in BuzzFeed, ThinkProgress, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, The Seattle Globalist, AAPI Voices and International Examiner. She also serves as a consultant for Families of Color Seattle and is social media coordinator for the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference.

Sharon and her husband are both children of Asian immigrants who grew up in America at a time when assimilation was heavily pushed. Consequently neither of them are even conversational in their father and mother tongues, respectively. This language loss has always felt acutely painful to them especially in the ways it’s tied to institutional, xenophobic US racism. Today they are trying to raise their young son with proficiency in one of his heritage languages but the challenge continues to be long, hard and arduous.

About this event and its connection to Feeding Ghosts: The Life of Sun Yi: 

This event is part of the larger project Feeding Ghosts: The Life of Sun Yi, an in-progress graphic novel by Tessa Hulls. Feeding Ghosts explores loss of language, generational inheritance of trauma, mental illness, mother/daughter relationships, mixed-race American identity, and loss of culture, through the life story of the author’s maternal grandmother, Sun Yi.

Sun Yi was a reporter in Shanghai in the 1940’s, where she had an affair with a Swiss diplomat during the year of the communist takeover, and became pregnant with a mixed-race bastard child. She fled the country for Hong Kong with her young daughter, Rose, in 1958 and subsequently wrote a bestselling autobiography entitled “Eight Years in Communist China: Love, Starvation, Persecution.” Sun Yi used the money from her book to enroll her daughter in an elite British boarding school in Hong Kong, and then suffered a nervous breakdown—initially diagnosed as schizophrenia and later revised to bipolar disorder—and was institutionalized. When Rose Hulls immigrated to the United States on a college scholarship, she eventually brought her mother over with her, and Tessa Hulls grew up with Sun Yi living within her nuclear family. In spite of the fact that Sun Yi and Rose conversed solely in Cantonese, Tessa did not learn the language, and was never able to truly communicate with her grandmother, or read her autobiography.

Now, as an adult and professional artist, Tessa is seeking to remedy the fact that she never truly knew her grandmother or her culture, and is working on a graphic novel about Sun Yi’s life and the generational impact of its reverberations. With the generous support of a City Artist grant from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Tessa commissioned a translation of her grandmother’s autobiography, and is presenting this roundtable discussion as a component of this grant. Tessa has also received a research grant from 4Culture and will be traveling to Hong Kong this fall to see where her mother and grandmother lived.

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