My Temple of My Familiar: Thoughts on “Literal”

It wasn’t long after this picture was taken that, in a rock fight with some neighborhood Vietnamese boys, I got hit in the head, right in the temple. No wonder the photo doesn’t show either the blood or the tears; nor does it show the sweat, as I wondered whether Daddy would spank me again for yet another rock fight. He spared me that time, at the risk of spoiling me I’m sure. In this family portrait, I’m the one sitting with Daddy. My brothers posed over there with Mommy were later, during the neighborhood battle of our crisis, the first on the scene of my casualty, saying, “Boy, you really got beaned on the temple. Wow, blood’s gushing right out of your temple. Daddy’s gonna see that nasty temple.” And this is probably why, the next Sunday in church when Daddy was preaching, I actually paid attention when he himself said “temple.” He said:

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

Pointing to the dark stitches on my temple from where the blood had once poured, I assumed my brothers were listening when I whispered,

“Know ye not that that this is how God looks; I’m his bloody temple with stitches.”

But then, Mục Sư Nguyễn [Rev. Nguyen] had to spoil the fun by translating Daddy’s verses for the Vietnamese congregation:

Anh em há chẳng biết mình là đền thờ của Đức Chúa Trời,
và Thánh Linh Đức Chúa Trời ở trong anh em sao?

Vietnamese is our other mother tongue, my brothers’ and mine. We learned it from many (not only from our neighborhood playmates, those rock throwing warriors, but also from Mục Sư Nguyễn and other interpreters) including our other mother, Chị Năm [literally, “Big Sister number Five”], who was our Nanny. But nothing in this language is literal; nothing much had been literal, that is, until Portuguese missionaries and then French missionaries, especially Alexandre de Rhodes, came and gave it the alphabet. There’s no proper word in 字喃 [the old Vietnamese figural writing] for “temple” on your face; so the medical doctors now writing and speaking Tiếng Việt [Vietnamese language with the new letters] just call it “thái dương,” a phrase which I learned for my body part near my forehead, of course, only when I was taken to the doctor to get my stitches. Literally, “thái” can mean “behavior” and “dương” can mean “good,” which is a bit ironic, I’d say. But the phrase “thái dương” is also ambiguously a phrase that means “solar” as in “thái dương hệ” or “solar system.”

And when Mục Sư Nguyễn interpreted Daddy saying “temple” as “đền thờ,” well, this meant, word for word, and letter by letter, something like “pagoda church.” To translate Daddy’s “Baptist Church,” Mục Sư Nguyễn would call it “Hội Thánh Báp-tít.” Literally, or shall we say, letterally, “Hội Thánh” is “Community [of] Saints.” But who knows, really, what either “Báp” or “Tít” mean [with their high rising tone that missionary Alexandre de Rhodes named the “acute-angry” tone when he wrote his Portuguese and Latin, Vietnamese dictionary]? Both forms are literally foreign. The word, “Tít,” is used for the biblical characters named “Titus,” and for the New Testament book called “Titus,” and it’s also used for “headlines” or “Titles” for the newspapers. The strange headnoun “Báp” is now short and verbal for “Báp-tít.” Letterally, or we might say merely transliterally, the spelled-out, hyphenated word Báp-tít is tied to the Greek word, βαπτίζω, for “to immerse,” which is a fair translation of the Jewish cleansing ritual of immersion called, מִקְוָה, which is little known by most Baptists, even the Baptists who are missionaries. To complicate all of this, my Daddy is one of the literally “Beautiful People,” or “Người Mỹ,” those American people who were to save South Vietnam from the Communists by war; and he is one of the “Southern Baptists,” who were to save slavery for the white people in the Southern part of the United States even though the efforts at salvation meant war, a literal blood bath beyond all belief, a war for race-based slavery justified in large measure by the Bible.

(I could tell you about how one of my brothers called a nasty hand sign Vietnamese boys made, “the hyphen,” and how I called it “the parentheses”; and yet, would it really make sense to you to know what that meant literally? The hand gesture is literally formed by one’s taking his middle finger and pulling back the end of his pointer finger so that a slit opens up. Sometimes, the gesture is made less ambiguous by taking the middle finger or the pointer finger of the other hand and sliding it in and out of the “parentheses.” Sometimes, the gesture is made more literal by the gesturer’s pulling down his britches and trying to provoke another boy to prove that he also is a boy. Sometimes, all of this literal signs are made even more offensive when the gesturer pees onto the dirt-yard of your home. I’m literally writing this parenthetical paragraph here because some of these literal things are layered with meanings.)

But the point I’m trying to make is that, as confusing as this all may sound to anybody else, it wasn’t confusing at all. It still isn’t. My brothers literally laughed at my joke whispered in church, and they never needed Aristotle’s advice to his students to avoid ambiguities. All of us Vietnamese speakers can see shades of blue and of green when using one word, xanh, for them all. All of us can understand how “ye” and “you” in Daddy’s scripture refer to the same person (whether that’s just one person or more); all of us get how Rev. Nguyen’s interpretation of “ye” as “anh em” is decidedly masculinist, literally aimed at the “elder brothers and their juniors.” One of my brothers attended a dissertation defense I gave, and there together, in public, we re-membered, literally, a Vietnamese joke he invented. Our parents were right in the room with us, and what great fun!

What I’m wanting to emphasize is how figural literal language can be. And how literal figural words can be. And how, despite efforts to focus on either the one or the other (i.e., either “figurative” language or on “idioms and metaphors”), these can be mixed and layered without confusion to the insider, and with some pleasure anyway for the outsider.

Missionary kids are wonderful insider/outsiders, or are they outsider/insiders? When I read books like The Poisonwood Bible, the play with language by the MKs rings true. So you may have already figured that my post’s title is a play, literally, on the title of Alice Walker’s novel. No, not The Color Purple. Yes, right, The Temple of My Familiar. If it’s not familiar to you, then you might want to read it. I’ll warn you that it’s not very western, not very white, not very patriarchal, not very straightforward, but is full of literary reversals and plays, even on the word, literal. Here’s a bit of what I mean, a quote from an MK, quoting her Daddy first:

“‘What is one absolute truth about the man of color on this earth?’ my father would ask. ‘He admits spirit,’ he would answer himself. And by this he meant spirit in everything, not just in God or the Holy Ghost, who at one time was the Female in the Deity, or Jesus Christ.

“Throughout these discussions I watched my mother…. I was fascinated by her. By the way she parted her still-black hair severely in the middle and braided it in two braids that met at the back of her head and were turned under. By the way she invariably wore pants, even to church. But pants so subtle only other women noticed they were pants. By the way she spoke little, apparently out of a childhood and young-adult habit of silence, and how, when she did speak, there was a perkiness, a plainness, that was sometimes humorous but always compelling. She was a literal speaker. What she expressed she both felt and was.

I literally think Alice Walker’s character’s mother, or Alice Walker’s character, or the womanist writer Alice Walker herself is very clever: “She was a literal speaker. What she expressed she both felt and was.” In contrast, is the reading of the Bible that comes before that. And that brings me back, again, to what Adele Berlin advises:

Above all we must keep in mind that narrative is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than the painting of an apple is real fruit.

Then echoes Hélène Cixous, saying literally in English:

I’ve learned to read Brazilian in order to read Clarice Lispector because I know that the secrets are in the skin and flesh of the original language…. I do not resound as much for painting, as for writing…. I think that one of the mysteries of writing, of language, is really the fact that when we write at surface level (while we write or weave something on the surface) — underneath the ground where the half of the body, where the dog is hidden [in the painting]), is where language goes on weaving kinds of effects of meaning, of music, and forth which we don’t know of.

There is a body, a spirit, to what constitutes language. Without having to liken it to “the familiar” in Walker’s novel, what constitutes language, embodied, literally figurally, is what is or becomes familiar. The danger of separations, of insisting on a binary between “literal” and “figurative” — so that no one gets confused in Bible translation, for example, is that we all might forget something Willis Barnstone has written in his history and theory of translation:

A deeper infidelity in Bible translation goes undetected, however. For although it is assumed that the felony of contemporary Bible translators is literary insensitivity, mediocrity, or overliteralism, few people realize that from earliest Bible translation to the present there has only been the appearance of literalism [for accuracy’s sake, of course] . . . The translations of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures, consciously or not, are similar to the controlled news information in authoritarian states. In other words, license (register c) and extreme freedom has been applied to Bible translations, yet passed off as literalism (register a). There is nothing uncommon about a misalliance of theory and practice, of intention and realization. The gap between proclaimed intention and realization in regard to Bible translation is extreme, however. [My italics, literally]

I often wonder whether wars, or rockfights, get started over such so-called literal divisions.


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