Language as My Odyssey
by Scott Sumrall
I have come to Salem State as a transfer student from a small private college in Cambridge called Lesley University. The path to Lesley and from Lesley to Salem State has been wrapped through a labyrinth, often dark. To be a student of language, I’ve learned, is to see that labyrinth for what it is: not a byway, but life itself, or subjective experience made of language. To study languages of the past and present is to learn to love the maze, to laugh as it pretends to close you in with its immanent structures only to open onto universe after universe.
I remember the day that I found out that the iron walls of the language maze can be turned to the contours of a never-ending game. I was seventeen. The instructor of Caribbean Literature, a class reserved for fluent Spanish speakers at Salem High School, eyed me skeptically and asked me a question in Spanish. Her delight in my answer turned to sternness about a year later when she told me that what I had wasn’t a gift but a responsibility.
I had little idea of what that meant until, a few years later, I found myself in the maze’s iron embrace, sweeping floors and washing dishes into my early twenties. I had forgotten the game; although I remembered my Spanish, reading novels and indulging in the art of kitchen conversation in my friend’s mother’s kitchen over beer, I only felt the choke of the unlit path, leading me down ever narrower ways. One day, however, I reached out: working at a nursing home, I met a woman from Italy who had been ripped away from her own garden of language. I did my best to help her revisit that garden, offering conversation in my schoolboy Italian and letting her throw me into the maze of her dialect, which wound through seventy years of lived history. This was a tantalizing re-opening into my own maze, which I realized would probably never cease opening into new mazes. The crucial point, though, was that I now knew this wasn’t a descent; I had passed through the inferno, and each new maze was a path to delight, or rather, was delight.
I haven’t been without my Virgil on this journey; or rather, I haven’t been short of Virgils. At Lesley, Dra. Sonia Pérez-Villanueva enhanced my love of the labyrinthine game of language, in particular by helping me relate it to literature. If I wanted to keep up on reading Latin while I studied Spanish literature, genial (“terrific”): I was encouraged to relate an eighteenth-century Spanish poem alluding to a sacred grove to a similar work in Ovid, for example.
Having arrived at Salem State, I find the same kind of receptivity and willingness to help me weave together my interest in theory, philosophy, and literature, all through the lens of language (which, as I’ve mentioned, I tend to think of as nothing short of everything); in studying an author like Jorge Luis Borges, for example, I’ve been encouraged by Dr. Reeds to relate the material to other areas of interest to me, such as Lacanian psychology. Likewise, I’ve been introduced to the works of Italo Calvino through my re-entry into Italian under the guidance of Dr. Rocca. This focus on the lens of language also helps me hone my awareness of current events, a pursuit I consider crucial to my study of political science.
Since arriving at Salem State, I have found a new friend in a visiting faculty member, Professor Wang Xiaohui, from the People’s Republic of China. Conversations in Chinese are a romp through the most wonderfully frustrating wing of my labyrinth, or more accurately at this point, my labyrinth complex. These opportunities to master the art of winding through the labyrinths, through disciplines like literature and everyday opportunities like human interaction, are what I consider to be fundamental to my future plans. Particularly, as someone who intends to intern in Italy as an undergraduate and to seek my next degree in Europe and/or Taiwan, I look forward to preparing myself further by staying close to what has become my center: the ongoing non-center of the language labyrinth. At Salem State, I know that I have the support and the community to do exactly that.