The first time I read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, I was so exhilarated. She has such a linguistic understanding of the way we see things in the world. I found myself questioning the words I use, really questioning them.
Growing up bilingual, I never really thought of language that way before. That is: I appreciate having the advantage. That is: having the ability to express myself in two languages is twice the possibility for someone in love with words.
I was only ever curious about what we lose when we move from one language to another. That is: I think about this loss with passing nostalgia (or frustration, in some cases), but I was not necessarily interested about using language itself to question and subvert our assumptions about that language.
I’ve always thought that the inadequacies I face when trying to find the right words have something to do with me and my skills as a writer. It is not enough to say that “I feel a lot of things,” especially when I mean that “I am verklempt.” It didn’t occur to me to reconsider how language actually constructs the world we know. I mean, yes, maybe I’ve thought about it—but have never really known it until Gertrude Stein. And how my life has changed since.
What Tender Buttons and other books that came after it have taught me: that our daily reality consists of grappling for words, and sometimes we’ll never find them. That I will reach certain moments in my life when the utter failure of language is exactly what I need. That faced with this loss of language’s ability to function normally, I must act, explore and de-familiarise, in order to get meaning.