Waiting for Language

Stephen Osborne

When he was a young man in the 1970s, Norbert Ruebsaat began writing tiny unperformable dramas in acts of 3 or 4 lines and published a number of them in 3-Cent Pulp, the zine published by Pulp Press Book Publishers (now Arsenal Pulp Press). One of these tiny works was called A Hog Named Desire, and another Che Arrives in Canada to Lead the Struggle against Oppression. You might say that he was reaching for limits to conventional and even unconventional drama beyond which it would be impossible to proceed. Borders and boundaries, limits, transitions and translation: these were elements of “cross-writing” that became central to his creative work.

In the nineties he taught ESL classes in which he introduced the concept of “cross-cultural listening”— a way of understanding how cultures learn to hear each other. Many of his students, he discovered, felt that second languages locate themselves in different areas of their bodies and occupy space differently than first languages, so that Canadian language is experienced acoustically in a disparate dimension. (Inevitably the politics of accents, which are unheard in the first stages of language acquisition, further complicates the growth of fluency.) Some of his students pitched their voices higher when speaking English, they told him, in order to reflect a change in status between their original language and this new one—they felt themselves to be smaller in the new language, they said, and he was reminded of his early life as an immigrant six-year-old in grade 1 who spoke only German: he could hear the other students speaking a language that told him nothing at all. “It made me think I did not exist in this language and did not exist in this place, and this thought made me panic,” he wrote years later. He imagined that the Queen, whose picture was above the blackboard, spoke the perfect English (which he often referred to as his “stepmother tongue”) that he must learn to imitate if he wanted to live in Canada: “I imagined her also to be the author of all the books we read, and of the alphabet that ran along the top of the blackboard. When I told my ESL students this they said they understood me perfectly.”

In 1990, his story “Nazis” won awards for both fiction and non-fiction. The single hinge between the two otherwise identical texts was the initial letter given to the narrator’s uncle, who as Uncle W in fiction transitions into Uncle N in non-fiction: in both versions he was a Nazi killed in the war in Russia “by a sniper’s bullet.” When the school showed newsreels of the Nazis and the war, Norbert could hear the German spoken in the soundtrack leaking through beneath the English voice of the announcer: they were never saying the same thing, as only Norbert could tell. Cross-cultural listening became Norbert’s working method in the essays, reviews and stories that he published widely in Canadian periodicals. He was a regular contributor to Geist. (His living room was the launch site for the prototype issue of Geist—“a magazine named in neither official language”—in 1990). He posted frequently on the literary website Dooney’s Café, and wrote many book reviews, features and articles for the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, and various literary journals. He also published Ruebsaat’s, an occasional newsletter which featured poetry and stories by himself and other Canadian writers. He produced documentaries on cross-cultural listening for Co-op Radio in Vancouver, where he worked for many years as a programmer, as well as CBC’s Ideas series. He was always writing, rewriting, translating, interrogating, interpreting… remembering. He wrote in the Rocky Mountains, the Kootenays, the Cariboo, Haida Gwaii, Germany, France and elsewhere.

He produced numerous translations of German plays on commission from the (erstwhile) Toronto Free Theatre, The Other Theatre in Montréal, the Banff Centre for the Arts and the Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles. He published poetry widely in literary magazines and anthologies; his poetry book, Cordillera, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press, and he wrote numerous texts and librettos in collaboration with Canadian composers Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp and Alcides Lanza, among others. In 2007 he contributed to Brian Howell’s photo study of people who impersonate celebrities, Fame Us: Celebrity Impersonators and the Cult(ure) of Fame (Arsenal Pulp). Examples of his work can be found at geist.com and dooneyscafe.com.

After teaching Communication and Media Studies for several years at SFU and Columbia College, Norbert moved to New Denver where he finished his memoir, In Other Words: A German Canadian Story—in which his childhood investigations are carried forward into the “grown-up” structures of memory and story that came before and then came later. In In Other Words we are returned to the six-year-old immigrant boy sitting tongue-tied in a grade 1 classroom in Edmonton in 1951, waiting for the new language to arrive.

Norbert Ruebsaat died in March in New Denver, BC. He was seventy-six. One of his early works that I remember well is an unperformable play that presses on to even further limits; it is called A Tape Recorder Knocks at the Gates of Heaven.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.


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