Dissertation Defense of Tingting Hui, Melodramas of the Tongue: Accented Speech in Literature, Art, and Theory

Melodramas of the Tongue: Accented Speech in Literature, Art, and Theory

Tingting Hui, Leiden University

Description: Defined as a way of pronunciation that is distinctive to a region, social class, or individual, accent is commonly perceived as a linguistic subject par excellence. This dissertation, however, approaches accent as a critical concept for analyzing and criticizing cultural phenomena where speech interacts with discourses of race, ethnicity, and literary creativity. It aims to 1) investigate the socio-political and cultural dynamics that take place when accented speech resounds publicly; 2) introduce the figure of the accent into literary studies to rethink the relation among language, body, and literature; and 3) compare the distinct ways in which linguistics and literature approach language and the speaking body.

In her dissertation, Hui close-reads a series of literary texts (such as Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin, Eva Hoffman’s memoir Lost inTranslation: Life in a New Language, Alice Kaplan’s language memoir French Lessons), performances and installations (for example, Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau’s stage performance Who am I? Think Again, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installation The Freedom of Speech Itself), which dramatize or reflect on the implications of speaking with an accent. Hui proposes that accent can be understood as a melodrama of the tongue which stages how a speaking body inhabits a language. While accent, with its distinctive melody and intonation, persistently draws one’s attention to a vocalizing mouth that swallows and drops, such an image gives rise to a melodramatic scene of speaking, which puts literature face to face with a primitive and regressive force of consumption and absorption.