Short Story Review – Mike Ormsby – Mother Tongue

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

Mike Ormsby’s short story, Mother Tongue, is sad story.  It’s not sad for its characters, which are mostly regular people doing ordinary things – a family, an argument between the parents, emigration to greener shores for better opportunities. It’s not sad for its plot, which, although it shows the breakdown of a relationship, isn’t really presented as sad so much as time passing.  No, it’s sad because it represents the ongoing homogenisation of things, this slow, steady shift from the culture we call ours, to the culture we adopt called theirs.  It’s sad because we witness yet another family disintegrate, the pieces melting seamlessly, vanishingly, into the huge melting pot of America.

The story opens in Romania.  The family is Maria, who has a PhD, and Gabriel, who is a lawyer.  The children are Razvan and Tudor, both boys, both curious about the comics the narrator, named Mike, has brought to the house.  Maria disapproves – it’s American style trash.  Gabriel is too incensed that his life has become a series of bribes to judges, that the great promise of post-Ceaușescu Romania hasn’t amounted to much change at all.  The children are fascinated, but Mike knows his place.

We observe the family through Mike’s eyes.  He can see that there is tension.  Gabriel wishes to leave Romania.  He doesn’t have a specific goal in mind (he suggests Rwanda at one stage), but we can tell that America is on his mind.  Maria is against the idea.  Over the initial dinner, and a subsequent series of snapshot-like scenes which encapsulate the growing disharmony of the family, we come to learn of Gabriel’s growing enchantment with leaving, and then his sudden emigration to America with the two boys.

The story closes with Maria attempting to connect to her sons via Skype, but they don’t care for her Romanian ways or her Romanian language, and through Mike we know that she is losing them.

She is talking to her sons in Romanian.  She looks unhappy, almost bewildered at their inability to keep up.  There is impatience in her voice, as if a truth has finally dawned on her after years of ominous signs; her sons are losing interest in their mother tongue.  They forget words and stumble over phrasing… Worse, they do not seem to care.  Their efforts are stilted and Tudor keeps sliding into English with a New York accent: “Coz, it’s kinda more natural, Mom.”

But it’s not just Maria who is losing her children.  It’s Romania that is losing its identity.  It’s all countries becoming progressively more Americanised.  In some nations, the number “911” works as an emergency number because the children and teenagers have heard it so often in American movies and television programmes that they assume it must be true of their country, too.  Any teenager or person in their twenties in Australia who hears the name “Brad” can easily follow it up with “Pitt” – no further context needed.  The phrase “Why so serious?” conjures Heath Ledger’s Joker.

Ormsby shows us that culture is a fragile thing, that it needs to be protected in order to survive.  America’s culture – whether you think positively or negatively of it – is so enormous, so powerful, that smaller cultures don’t stand a chance.  And I’m not talking about tiny tribes buried in faraway jungles, but entire nations.  It is true that here in Australia, an actor or singer or cultural figure hadn’t really “made it” until they have gone to America and become famous (or not) there.  If they are “just” accomplished in Australia, then they don’t really count.

The character of Maria is a surrogate for the culture of Romania, and in this she functions well.  She cooks the traditional food and she has a strong passion for her language.  The character of Gabriel, her husband, weakens the strength of Maria’s ability to engender sympathy within the reader because he constantly undermines her, but overall the characterisations work.  Effective, too, is Ormsby’s deft touch with the slang and mannerisms of American teenagers (which is what Razvan and Tudor become).  It isn’t overdone and it works to express the idea – they have become like everyone else.  Just about all their Romanian heritage would provide for them once they live in New York is an appealingly exotic name.

So, it’s a sad story.  What does one do to protect their culture?  Militancy doesn’t work.  Education may not work, either – children undoubtably recognise the golden arches before they know their nation’s major literary works, of paintings, or songs.  Ormsby doesn’t provide an answer but its clear, through his narrator, Mike, where his sympathies lie.

Author Mike Ormsby
Title Mother Tongue
Nationality British
Publisher/Book Title Bucharest Tales

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s