The Power of Language: Madura Katta at TEDxYouth@Edmonton (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Madura Katta’s TEDx Talk: The Power of Language at TEDxYouth@Edmonton conference.

Last summer in India, I volunteered at a school for the mentally challenged, where I met a 16 year old girl who was too petrified to utter a single word the entire time I was there. I was 16 as well but on the other hand I was loud, exuberant and I was running an art program that gave the girls there, resources to do this art,

The centre had painted before, but I suggested that they display their art. It not only brightened up the room, it also brightened up the girls’ faces. They kept pointing at it, telling me how much they loved seeing it up there. That was the first time in three weeks that I heard that 16 year old girl talk. That is the power of self expression.

Something she gave through her art and something I gave through language. Raise your hands, if you write in your journal at least twice a week. As you can see, most of the audience has their hands down. This is because quite often we put this expression of thoughts on the back burner. So, by the end of my speech I hope to convince you, not only to write more, but also to start expressing your thoughts more.

I’ve been a poet since Grade 2. I’ve always loved the way language can express such expansive feelings, like love or acceptance, such small phrases. My favorite form of poetry has always been free form. The language itself manages to break barriers, and circumvent the rules of grammar. The marvelous Canadian poet, Margaret Atwood, is characteristic of this form-breaking poetry.

In her poem ‘Two Fires’, she writes, “All those corners and straight lines flaming, the carefully made structure prisoning us in a cage of blazing bars.” This verse creates a dichotomy between structure, familiarity, and the wildness, unknown. Bringing forth the idea that unfamiliarity is not always a bad thing. The same way language can be used to look beyond perpetuated ideas, to explore, to discover what feels right to you. The more I write, the greater is my ability to explore, risk and discover.

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It’s about capturing the feeling that transcends more than just one idea or concept. It’s about breaking the norm. It can be as simple as this experience I had in the ocean, a couple of years ago, where I thought, “There is something to be said about loud sounds, company and feeling loved, there is more to be said about the peace and the ferocity of water.”

Coming from a large and noisy family, I never expected to gain anything from solitude, but expressing these thoughts on paper, I gained something unexplainable, an empowering sense of self. Language can not only be used to express yourself, it can also be used to talk about the stigmas of mental health. Or the systematic oppression of disadvantaged groups. Or it can be used to talk about the ease with which courage arises in a human. Or the worth of a girl in the world.

When I was talking about a war against depression recently, I decided to explore this idea of human capacity and I wrote, “I would have let someone die to keep my color my self alive. Because sometimes, cowardice is all people are capable of.” This acknowledgement of weakness is what makes us human, but if we push past that uncertainty, accept this cowardice to be part of who we are, we become greater people.

And so, I was constantly frustrated, at this idea that women were held to a higher standard, and if they betrayed any weakness, they would not be taken as seriously. So when I put these thoughts in a poem, my poem was chosen to be presented at the United Nations in New York, for International Day of The Girl. It wasn’t just a voice for those who cannot speak, but also my expression of being a woman.

So, two things will come about, if you challenge yourself to speak up. It will create space, to speak about issues you didn’t feel a need to before, and it will generate ideas, that not only change the world, but also change yourselves. Growing up is a time of so much unfamiliarity, I can tell you, I still don’t know if I want to do English or Engineering. But expressing my thoughts on paper, has given me these core values, that I know will never change, no matter what happens.

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That was my intention, when I hosted Edmonton’s Youth Open Mic last year. As someone who has participated in so many speech, debate and poetry competitions, I understand the euphoria it is to stand in front of a group of people, and make them care so deeply about something you care about.

Apathy is a great danger, and by speaking up, you’re able to discover all these new ideas and you’re able to look past what you know and look into uncertainty. All it took me was a couple of friends, a mic and a library for people to start talking and start caring. Anyone can do the same. Recognize the power a few words can have. Whether you stand in front of the mirror today, and tell yourself, “Wow, I look good!” Or, you know, talk to your parents about how your day went.

In the end, it all comes down to that 16 year old girl who not just spoke through her art, but spoke because of her art. So today, ladies and gentlemen, I challenge you, to take that first step forward and ask yourselves, “What do you want?” “How are you going to tell people about it?” and “What is your poem?”

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