Thursday, May 5, 2022

Short Fiction Reviews: "Give Me English" by Ai Jiang (F&SF, May/June 2022)



"Give Me English" is a simple story and appropriately short, set in a world where the currency is language. You pay the rent, a taxi fare, the grocery bill with words, which disappear from your mind with each transaction. The richer you are, the more languages you speak. The poor retain only a few words, and if they lose those they become homeless and Silent.

The protagonist is a young woman who has come to an English-speaking nation seeking a better life. Which, lacking a sufficient vocabulary, she cannot find. So she sells her native Chinese words bit by bit, to buy English. And, bit by bit, she loses the ability to communicate with her parents back home.

This is a lovely metaphor for the immigrant's struggle to learn a new language and fear that the old one--and their connection to family and origins--is steadily slipping away. But it's also something more.

One of the simplest pleasures in life is staring at the sky on a beautiful day. Sometimes it's subtle shades of blue blending into one another with gray-and-white clouds slowly shifting form. Other times it's a Wagnerian sunset with reds, oranges, and purples, like so many clarion blasts welcoming in the coming night. "If they could find a way to charge for the sky," I think at such times, "I could never afford this."

In the same spirit, "Give Me English" is not so much about the immigrant experience or even about predatory capitalism as it is about the beauty and wonder of language.


1 comment:

Peter D. Tillman said...

That cover sets off my acrophobia just to look at it!