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from the June 2018 issue

Chewing on Words

Speech and writing aside, there must exist other routes to the heart of language. Perhaps the “chewing words” method buried along with City 1997 was merely one of those.  

The International Fictional Cities website ( makes it easy to find cities as tiny as those numbered 1982 to 1996, or 1998 to 2007. Users can locate them on interactive maps, view 3-D photos of any street they like, and learn about the latest developments from a virtual guide. But City 1997 is like a runaway mystery train, never stopping at stations, tearing past blankly staring passengers as quickly as a dream, as though it were never there.

And yet I can't shake the memories of sitting with my mother on the 1997 subway platform. With my bottom glued firmly to the plastic of its gaudy yellow benches, I’d insist we keep on waiting. Back then, my mother's job meant we were always shuttling between 1982, 1999, and 2003. These were microcities, as tiny as fleas; their populations ran to a few hundred thousand at most, and they were very close to one another—sometimes, the ride between 1982 and 2003 was less than half an hour. Even so, we’d spend hours on the platform, watching one train after another flash before our eyes, waiting for one of the N30 models they'd stopped buying in the year 1997.

My mother never forced me onto the new-style trains that I so disliked and, even now, I can still feel the intensity of her self-restraint. According to her, I’d inherited my stubbornness from my father. And, without a doubt, she'd been just as tolerant of him; she loved us more than I can fathom. This love was tested more and more as the N30 trains were steadily phased out, leaving us waiting on the platform for longer and longer stretches.

At times, my mother would forget why we were waiting. Would appear to forget, also, the source of all the torment—me, sitting there beside her. Her eyes bored into the half-built skyscraper opposite, as if seeing through to a formless world beyond the bustle. She worked as a translator but in these moments seemed to shed language, slipping into a silence that was almost tangible.

City 1997 seemed to have disappeared into the same black hole as language. It was as though someone had suddenly pulled the plug on a speaker, letting the sound slide down the coil of the cable, then locking it inside the black box of history. As trains raced past, they robbed waiting passengers of their conscious minds, and in the resulting vacuum I could visualize more clearly what my mother had told me, about everyone losing their voices. Faces were squashed against the train windows, mouths frantically opening, but beneath the engine’s roar they were nothing but a silent tableau. When the trains were gone, the air was hazy, filled with an unidentifiable dust.

There'd been a morning, ice-cold as a dream, when residents of 1997 suddenly lost the ability to form words. To begin with, everyone assumed only their own throats were afflicted and, in their shock, shrieked incomprehensible sounds into the air, then heard them echoed from the gaping mouths of everyone else. They looked at their windows and the familiar grain of their wooden floors. Elevator doors opened, took them in, carried them down to the street, where the traffic lights still changed color every fifteen seconds. The sky was a dusty blue, inverted in the concave glass cladding of the skyscrapers. The city seemed the same, only now there was a person crouched on the ground, squawking like a bird, pointing up at a street sign. Someone else ran by and noted the sign's four strange, primitive pictograms, but had no idea what they meant. In a well-practiced gesture, a doctor pulled a beloved fountain pen from his pocket, only to find the first drop of black ink on paper sent all the words running from his brain.

Silently, the people of 1997 arrived at a consensus: It wasn't their voices that they'd lost, it was all memory of their language. Everything they saw was familiar, but they could no longer name it.

Language was replaced by shouting, crying, laughing, and gesticulating, as though the city had regressed into a second infancy. All day long, TV stations broadcast meaningless static. You had only to look out of a window to see fighting and bloodshed, although no one could explain why it was happening.

My mother was three months pregnant with me at the time and couldn’t bring herself to worry about the chaos all around her. Instead, she reclined silently on the bed and watched my father, who sat at his desk with his back to her. For days, he'd been staring dumbly at the tall stack of papers that made up the handwritten manuscript of his just-finished novel. My mother waited quietly for him to acknowledge her existence, having already tried shouting, crying, hitting, biting. But he couldn't tear his eyes from those alien words. After three days without eating, he fell to the floor, where my mother could still see the grief on his ashen face, overriding his hunger.

Like most residents of 1997, my mother had no idea that ours was the only language destroyed by the disease—that is, assuming it was all caused by a mutated virus, as people would later claim. By the time residents came to the dim realization that they'd been invaded by foreign powers (although I know most 1997ers disagree with this terminology), the television stations had been taken over and were broadcasting all kinds of foreign-language news and entertainment programs. Before long, there were neighborhood patrols and a provisional government, and our city was swamped with outside medical personnel and accompanying armies. Experts from all over offered opinions on how the original residents should be settled and governed, and while they had their differences, all agreed it was not feasible to reinstate residents' memory of their native tongue; the only way to save the city was to make them learn a new one.

Reportedly, involvement from those various governments quickly restored order to 1997 but also caused the formation of linguistically segregated neighborhoods. The breakup of the city became unavoidable. According to International Fictional Cities, this was when the boundary was established between the up-and-coming cities of 1982-1996 and 1998-2007. You won't find any trace of 1997 among those new-build developments now. The old city records linger like anguished spirits with their tongues cut out, the complex brush strokes and lithe, graceful characters unable to impart information to anyone ever again. Now, the deceased city is conjured only through translated literary works—their fidelity no longer possible to determine—and the meandering, unreliable narratives of the elderly.

The residents of 1997 suffered, of course they did, but felt enormous gratitude for the troops who had come to save them. They babbled their new languages like infants learning to speak, as though devoid of all history. My mother was a determined woman: in those challenging times, not only did she single-handedly care for my father, she also learned several new languages, having discovered a hitherto unknown aptitude. By contrast, my father's silence seemed to have become an immutable fact of life.

Was my silence due to some leftover strain of the same virus? My mother would button up my coat and take my hand as we left the house. I wouldn't talk, so she kept taking me to the hospital for tests, where the doctors would place different kinds of fruit in front of me. “This is an apple,” they'd say, opening their mouths exaggeratedly wide, describing perfectly commonplace items until I burst into loud peals of even more exaggerated laughter. Next, they'd place their ice-cold stethoscopes on my chest, as though listening for all the words I hadn't said out loud. Every single one diagnosed me with Type-7 autism, but I knew my mother wasn't convinced; she thought there was something else behind this silence that had afflicted first my father and now me.

If I could still see the two of us reflected in the train windows as it pulled into the station, my mother’s eyes would be brimming with hope. She'd be willing me to stand up and step into the carriage; to tell her all my secrets. I sympathized, I really did, but even though I wanted to please her, my reflection always stayed on the bench, straight-backed and blank-faced, until the signal sounded, the doors closed, and the train departed.

Over time, there'll be fewer and fewer former 1997 residents inclined to resist the new languages. And, like my father, they'll be less and less understood. When the new cities were allocated their share of 1997, they busied themselves celebrating. The pop and flash of fireworks seemed to occupy every last inch of space, and those silent leftover 1997ers shrank into the shadows. As people would later declare: 1997 became a city within a city; the shadow behind the light.

Why did my father choose to leave without saying good-bye, just before I was born? All I can say is, while he never learned to understand my mother's languages, neither did anyone ever truly understand his silence.  

My mother had no idea. While she was in the hospital giving birth, my father mutely loaded his manuscript and book collection into a handcart, then wheeled it out of the house and over to a temporary rubbish dump. This was an enormous junk pile inside a vacant lot bounded by a chain-link fence. He would have seen a whole city of old, discarded objects and, perched on top, an assembly of blank-faced humans. They all looked off toward a clock tower in the distance, as though waiting for a particular moment to arrive.

And so he sat down among them, calmly awaiting that unknowable juncture. If someone were to have laid a fire—well, then they'd have watched together as their city died. But they must have been hungry, sitting out there on top of the rubbish. Such a fine collection of books, why not rip them apart and stuff them into their mouths? I don't know who was the first to think it, but whoever it was snatched a small scrap from my father's copy of A Beautiful Era. At first, the paper was a little dry and bitter, and he had to wash it down with mineral water. But, gradually, his face suffused with an unprecedented clarity.

Time and time again, I chew thoughtfully on my father’s manuscript and, as I do, I inch closer to experiencing how he and those others must have felt.

For the first time, they would have been able to taste the texture and flavor of those supposedly dead words. They would have delighted at how this deepened their understanding of language, to a degree more profound than they'd ever experienced before. But, very quickly, they would also have realized that they had no way to express this new understanding to anyone else. Yet they kept cramming the words into their mouths. Kept cramming, despite the pain of knowing that, once eaten, the words would vanish from history.

My father must have wanted to share this joy with others, which is why he brought his manuscript home untouched. Did he have a premonition that I'd be both its first and final reader?

Waiting on the platform with my mother, as the trains rushed past us and disappeared, how I wished she, too, could have understood all this.

© Dorothy Tse. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.

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