Eleanor Stanford’s latest book is Bartram’s Garden (Carnegie Mellon Press, 2015). She is a 2014–15 Fulbright Fellow to Brazil, where she is researching and writing about traditional midwifery. An excerpt from her essay “Grammar for an Unwritten Language (Cape Verde, West Africa)” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Grammar for an Unwritten Language”?
While I was in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde, learning and speaking Cape Verdean Creole, I thought a lot about what it means for a language to exist only in the air—to not have a literature or a formalized writing system. As someone who is very tied to the written word, it felt disorienting, and seemed to embody for me other types of disorientation I felt at the time.
There’s a wonderful moment near the beginning of your story when you mention there are no conjugations in Creole. “Just past or present.” When did you settle on the structure of the story—arranging the events around elements of grammar? Did you try to write this story in the present tense before the past tense?
Parts of it were initially in the present tense, yes, but I realized as I was writing it that the events, which seemed at the time endless, felt very definitively locked in the past, and so I changed it.
Sections of this were written many years ago, but it was only when I found the structure of the grammatical elements that the piece began to come together.
You spent 2014-15 as a Fulbright fellow in Brazil. Has your time abroad affected your writing, or your understanding of language? Could you tell us a little about that experience?
The Fulbright took me to rural Northeast Brazil for the summer of 2014, and I will actually be returning to complete the grant in summer 2016. In 2014, I went with my husband and three sons, and we stayed in a couple of different towns in the interior, in the region called Chapada Diamantina. I also traveled with a midwife from Salvador to some quilombos (former slave communities) in areas near the coast. I interviewed traditional midwives—many in their eighties and nineties—from all these different communities.
I feel that being abroad, immersed in another culture and language, makes me more attuned to language in general—its sounds and rhythms, the hidden meanings and strange idiosyncrasies we usually take for granted.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I used to be more rigid about writing every day. Since having kids twelve years ago, I’m not, and this greater flexibility seems to work for me, for the most part.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Motherhood. Other relationships. The natural world.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Don’t take your writing too seriously.
Could fit any of those categories, depending.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
As mentioned earlier, I am researching and writing about traditional midwifery in Brazil. I’m working on poems about and in the voices of traditional Brazilian midwives, as well as creative nonfiction that deals with the topic.