What it’s like to lose your first language is the tale of our very own Hasanthika Sirisena and her reflection on her life here in America. Told as a graphic webcomic, this story details her account of her mother's death and how only after her passing does she realize how valuable a language truly is. She reflects upon how growing up she only spoke one language and how that ostracized her from others who could speak three or four, or how it broke her mother’s heart to only speak in english. The comic ends on the note of solitude, stating that after her father passes away, there’s no way to get back what is lost.
Hasanthika Sirisena is an award winning writer and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University. Her writing has been featured in Michigan Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Kenyon Review Online, WSQ, and others. Their collection, The Other One was the winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction and was released in 2016.
1. How is your language linked to your identity? What words, phrases, languages, or dialects are important to you, but maybe not universal to all people?
2. How does the visual style of this essay demonstrate to the theme of adaptability? What is the role of visuals in our communicative lives?
Draw a comic to accompany your Summer Assignment. Think about what you can draw, sketch, or doodle that enhances your story and tells your reader a bit more about who you are and how you've experienced the collection.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, but the myth we have constructed around this reality is that people “yearning to be free,” arrive on our shores from all parts of the world, and without a backward glance, plunge into American culture, learn American English in nothing flat, and become new citizens. This myth soothes us and keeps us confident in our country’s mission by erasing dislocation, loneliness, and loss: the suffering inevitably accompanying a long separation from family, friends, and familiar way of life, along with the long transition into a new culture. Immigration involves taking on a new personal identity. Central to identity is language.
This text, written and drawn by Prof. Hasanthika Sirisena here at SU gives voice to the pain experienced by so many immigrants who arrive as children and later find their first language slipping away. Because language and identity are so closely intertwined, this can leave people feeling unmoored from the culture of their heritage, unable to communicate with grandparents and other family members, while also not feeling “American”—or worse yet, not being fully accepted as American by those who have been here longer. This loss-gain of language with its corresponding loss-gain of personal and cultural identity is the profound adaptation we expect of immigrants without giving much thought to the process or the personal cost involved. Do you think this kind of language loss is essential to integration into American society? Why do you think it has been so central to the American story?